Desert Isle Keeper
The Siren of Sussex
Mimi Matthews tops herself with the first novel in what appears to be a fresh and brilliant new series with The Siren of Sussex, the tale of an independent horsewoman and the tailor who vows to make her the most talked about equestrienne in all of England – both of whom suddenly discover love in the most unexpected of places. The beautiful romance and wonderfully drawn characters at play here effortlessly make this my favorite Matthews yet.
The strong-willed, plain spoken country girl Miss Evelyn Maltravers is looking for a tailor. Not just any tailor, but the sort of person who can make her an outstanding, eye-catching riding habit – something that will bring her to the notice of every fellow in the vicinity as she shows off her formidable equestrian skills. Evelyn, you see, is in want of a husband – the family estate has tumbled into bankruptcy and she struggles to enter into society in order to save her sister’s future from further ruin. Figuring that her riding skills and her love of fashion are her truest interests and believing both will land her a mate, she enters Mr. Doyle’s millinery shop looking for someone who can rival even the Pretty Horsebreakers – a team of former courtesans who have become the talk of Rotten Row with their outfits and daring moves on horseback – and falls to her destiny.
Half-Indian Ahmad Malik happens to be the very tailor whose designs are sported by the Pretty Horsebreakers, and the notion of designing Evelyn’s wardrobe for an entire Season is a challenge that’s too tempting to resist. Ahmad is a determined survivor – he took up tailoring to support the care of his cousin, Mira, whose wastrel father – a British soldier – drank himself to death, leaving Mira homeless and poor, and both of them feel adrift – not accepted by their white British neighbors or their Indian countrypeople alike. Ahmad knows he has talent enough to succeed and hopes to open up a dress shop, but he needs a good model to do those things – and Evelyn’s entrée into society seems to be as good an eye-catcher as any – especially because she plans on making her début on horseback while riding down Rotten Row. With Evelyn becoming the toast of the broadsheets, Ahmad sees his dream coming true – but his truest dream just might be landing in his Evie’s arms, cultural and social differences be damned.
What a wonderful romance! I loved these characters, the simple and beautifully done plot, and the slow-burning tension between Ahmad and Evie, who go from intrigued acquaintances to impassioned but seemingly star-crossed lovers over the space of the book’s three-hundred plus pages.
Evelyn is a revelation. She knows what she’s good at and is bound and determined to get what she needs and wants. She thinks she’s plain, but Ahmad is more than willing to prove her wrong on that account.
Ahmad, meanwhile, is as strong as Evelyn and determined to protect his cousin. Both of them feel rootless in this new country, rootless in their own culture, and Ahamd eventually finds home in Evie, but that doesn’t mean that she blinds herself to their differences. She educates herself about India and tries to bridge the cultural gap between them, but even deeper is the social one. Evie comes from a down-at-heel family socially, but she knows people in high places, while Ahmad is from humbler circumstances. It’s still a significant social gap well played for tension by Matthews.
Our characters basically fall in love at first sight, and then a few conversations later find respect for each other. Their unease with themselves and their social positions provide much tension, avoiding a Big Mis and playing the understandable conflicts brought up by their social differences. It is a fine romance indeed and builds to a love confession that is more satisfying than any purple prosed tumblings I’ve read lately. I mean, he makes her a dress with deep, useful pockets. That is true love if I ever saw it.
There are a number of wonderful secondary characters – Stella, Anne and Julia, three fellow society girls Evelyn makes fast friends with; Evelyn’s spiritualist Uncle Harris, who is, like everyone else, trying to make contact with the recently deceased Prince Albert; Gossipy Lady Arundell, who helps Evelyn enter into society and sets her cap for dotty, distracted Harris; and Mira, who finds her own path and love. Even Hephaestus, Evelyn’s horse, has a distinct personality. All are wonderful.
As always, Matthews has done her research, especially into the sumptuously-described outfits of the time and the feeling of London during the Victorian era. The Siren of Sussex is easily the best romance I’ve read so far this year, and is definitely one of my favorite romances of all time.