It’s August in Paris and 17-year-old Khayyam Maquet—American, French, Indian, Muslim—is at a crossroads. This holiday with her professor parents should be a dream trip for the budding art historian. But her maybe-ex-boyfriend is probably ghosting her, she might have just blown her chance at getting into her dream college, and now all she really wants is to be back home in Chicago figuring out her messy life instead of brooding in the City of Light.
Two hundred years before Khayyam’s summer of discontent, Leila is struggling to survive and keep her true love hidden from the Pasha who has “gifted” her with favored status in his harem. In the present day—and with the company of a descendant of Alexandre Dumas—Khayyam begins to connect allusions to an enigmatic 19th-century Muslim woman whose path may have intersected with Alexandre Dumas, Eugène Delacroix, and Lord Byron.
Echoing across centuries, Leila and Khayyam’s lives intertwine, and as one woman’s long-forgotten life is uncovered, another’s is transformed.
Publication date: April 7th 2020
*I received a Kindle edition / ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*
Have you ever read a poem, or looked at a painting and wondered who it was about or what the figure in the painting was like? What the real story behind that enigmatic smile is? Or who that fair youth was? Well if the answer is yes, then this novel is all about uncovering such mysteries and will definitely satisfy fans of historical fiction, literary intrigue and adventure.
Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know is a richly woven and deeply entertaining novel which merges fact and fiction in the most delightful ways. The story follows 17 year old Khayyam, as she begins what she is sure is going to be an uneventful summer in Paris. Still smarting from an academic fiasco of epic proportions as well as being ghosted she can’t see what comes next. However, after a chance encounter with a handsome stranger, who also happens to be a descendant of Alexander Dumas, Khayyam sees an opportunity to get her life and work back on track. The further they go, and the more Khayyam and Alexandre uncover about the mysterious Leila and each other, the more complicated it seems to get…
What drew me to this novel in the first place was the whole concept behind it; a young muslim woman in the modern day, discovering and telling the story of a muslim woman from the past, with art history and a literary mystery and Byron? and Dumas? SIGN ME UP! I was kept interested the entire time as Khayyam and Alexandre work to figure out the various clues through letters, documents and art, and trace Leila’s life and story. It was like a literary treasure hunt and it was just so good! I also liked how fact and fiction were interwoven in the novel, using real paintings and poems from Dumas, Byron and Delacroix to form a basis but Samira Ahmed makes them all fit her narrative which I loved. I feel like this is creative license / freedom done really well. I also liked the little detail that Khayyam is named after the Persian poet Omar Khayyam whose poetry is beautiful, if you haven’t read any of his work before, do yourself a favour and do it!
I enjoyed the fact that we got to read from Leila’s perspective and while the entire book has some beautiful quotes, Leila’s sections in particular have some stunning passages. I felt so deeply for this young woman whose choices were taken away for so long, who finally makes a bid for her freedom and reading how it all plays out was satisfying, but also deeply saddening too. I also liked the connection that Khayyam feels to Leila despite the fact that they’re generations apart and have obviously never met, and how committed she got to telling Leila’s story, and even deliberating on whether this is the right thing to do. I thought it was quite profound that Khayyam strives to give Leila an agency of sorts, one that she sadly wasn’t allowed during her lifetime.
Also, it would be impossible for me to write this review and not mention how gorgeously Ahmed writes Paris. I know objectively and from reading other peoples experiences that the city of lights isn’t all macarons, walks by the Seine, boulangeries and quaint bookstores but I was happy to see it this way in the novel. I’m keeping these rose tinted glasses on and no-one can stop me!
One of the things I didn’t love so much were some instances of unnecessary repetition which felt a little heavy handed and like I was being hit over the head with this one point ie; womens voices being silenced, when a reader would know this already from reading the book and after the 10th time Khayyam says it like, we know! I also think the constant back and forth and ‘dilemma’ that Khayyam has in regards to the two love interests felt a bit tired and again very repetitive after a certain point. I feel like the novel would have worked better for me with slightly less of this shallow stuff.
Overall, this was a really enjoyable read for me and I can’t wait to read more of Samira Ahmed’s books in the future. This was exactly the fun, romantic and intriguing read I needed right now after some heavier books and everything else going on in the world, I was transported to the little lanes and quaint libraries of Paris and it was amazing. I would definitely recommend this for readers who may be seeking some escape, as well as a genuinely clever story.
Until next time,