I really should give up reading Samira Ahmed books. This is the third one I’ve read, and while she is definitely getting better, I still don’t know why her editors don’t fix her flat notes. Like in Internment, the premise in this book is amazing, but other parts are just cringe-y and painful and really, really unnecessary. My guess is, she would identify herself as a romance YA author, and yet consistently in her works, that is the most lacking part: the character building and forced romances. The art history mystery, the inspiration and “real” life of the characters from the past, the setting of Paris in the summer, the fight for woman to be heard are all so well done and compelling and interesting that this romp that blurs fact and fiction might deserve a read, but you have to overlook the forced love triangle, excessive kissing, be willing to suspend reality regarding Alexandre Dumas, Eugène Delacroix, and Lord Byron, artifacts and sleuthing, but if you can do all that, this 337 page book for 9th grade and up, is definitely fun and hard to put down.
The protagonist is 17-year-old French-Indian-Muslim-American Khayyam, who is spending her summer in Paris with her professor parents like they do every year. But this year is different as she is being ghosted by her boyfriend Zaid back in Chicago and has just been humiliated by her poor research attempts to link a missing painting from artist Delacroix to author Dumas in an entrance essay competition to her dream school. Khayyam’s story is really just beginning though as she steps in dog crap and bumps into a descendent of Alexandre Dumas as she wipes it off. A cute descendant, who shares the name with his distant grandfather, and viola’ the two of them are off on a whirlwind adventure of clues and attraction and mystery solving.
Khayyam’s story is interwoven and told between small glimpses of Leila’s story. Leila is a Haseki, a chosen concubine of the Pasha in Ottoman Turkey, but the lover of Giaour and friend of the jin. As we learn her story from 200 years earlier and her struggle to break free of her gilded cage in the harem, only to be defined by the artist and poets and author men around her, her story and Khayyams collide.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I know precious little of art history, I can name drop a few artists and paintings, but that is being generous, so the fact that I have no clue what is real and what is fake and what is possible, made this story all the more fun and engaging. Yes, I researched, aka Googled, stuff as I read and am perfectly content to accept the fictional what ifs that the book offers. I love how the art world and literary world are one in the book and that they inspired each other. The way the sleuthing, the finding of artifacts, and unraveling of it all is presented is indeed a romp. Realistic? Not a chance, but fun. I also love how both Khayyam and Leila had to define themselves and ultimately not do it in the reflection of a male.
The rest of the book, is a bit of a stretch. Leila’s story naturally has holes in it as it is told in broken pieces, but Khayyam’s story does too. I just didn’t care about her past boyfriend/ex-boyfriend/friend, whatever Zaid is or was, and clearly after moping about him for 300 pages and then not even giving him a proper goodbye, means that the author and character didn’t really care either, which made the already forced, cringe-y annoyingness all the more grating. As for the relationship, the other piece in the triangle, with Alexandre, was fine in that there was angst, but they put it aside to solve the mystery, so it didn’t bother me too much. Of course the fact that Khayyam is a practicing Muslim who seems to have no problems with boyfriends, and making out and that her parents don’t mind either, makes the faith aspect all the more befuddling. I guess practicing might be a stretch, her mom and her go to Jummah prayer on Friday, thats about the extent, and she mentions she doesn’t drink. Zaid, sets up a tutoring program at the masjid, but his instagram has him hanging all over girls too, so not sure why the characters are even Muslim. I suppose it is good to have that diverse representation, but it doesn’t seem to make much necessary sense to the overall story.
Implied concubine activities, with the Pasha and the lover. Lots and lots and lots of kissing, nothing graphic, but annoying amounts of it being mentioned.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I want someone to discuss it with me and point out where the facts end and the speculation starts and when the full on fiction takes over. I don’t think I could use this book as a book club book because of the center stage of the haram romances in both Khayyam’s time and Leila’s. But if you have read it, talk to me about it, I’m curious!
NPR’s Review: https://www.npr.org/2020/04/11/831873365/in-mad-bad-dangerous-romantic-sleuths-uncover-a-byronic-secret