Review: 'Mad, Bad & Dangerous To Know,' By Samira AhmedSamira Ahmed's new novel bounces between two timelines, following a Muslim American art student in Paris, and the mysterious harem woman she believes inspired work by Lord Byron and his circle.
An amateur art historian uncovers the story of a mysterious woman who inspired some of the great works of Alexandre Dumas, Lord Byron, and Eugène Delacroix in this delightful romp through the City of Lights.
Khayyam is a girl who exists in the liminal space between several identities. She's American, raised in Chicago by her professor parents, but spends her summers in Paris. Her mom is Indian American and Muslim, and her dad is French. She speaks multiple languages and proves to be both adaptable and self-conscious as she navigates multiple worlds. She's also obsessed with art history.
Her pet theory is that the French painter Delacroix gifted a painting depicting the story of TheGiaour — a tragic, orientalist romance written by Lord Byron — to Dumas, famed writer of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. But the Art Institute scholarship committee shoots her down, possibly ruining her chance to attend her dream college. As if that wasn't bad enough, things are over with the not-exactly-boyfriend she's still in love with. Defeated, she retreats to Paris for the summer with her parents.
A dismissal from the gatekeepers of the art history world isn't enough to kill her passion for Delacroix, and a visit to Le Petit Palais museum in Paris to visit her favorite painting yields her an interesting new acquaintance: the incredibly cute and charming descendant of Alexandre Dumas himself — also named Alexandre Dumas! It turns out that he also wants to investigate the connection between his ancestor and Delacroix, and together, they begin to unravel the mystery of Leila, the enigmatic woman who they theorize was at the center of both the tale of The Giaour and the art of the 19th century creatives who were obsessed with her.
Slipping as it does between the modern narrative of history detectives falling in love and a more fairytalesque imagining of The Giaour from the fictional Leila's perspective, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know could be billed as a sort of lighthearted, teen-centric Possession. Telling a dual narrative like this is a risk — I find I often favor either the modern or the historical narrative while reading, to the detriment of the other. But this book finds the perfect balance. The source material is rich, with references to Byron's escapades, Dumas' indiscretions, and the drug-hazed antics of the infamous Hash Eaters Club. Most intriguing is Leila herself, based on a footnote in an orientalist fantasy of violence, here imagined in nuanced detail as a woman with determination, faith, and resilience. Khayyam is consumed with the desire to bring her true story to light and prove to the world that history is full of fascinating and important women who have been overshadowed by men.
As an American who spent a year living in France as a teenager, I can confirm that author Samira Ahmed completely nails the details of Khayyam's experiences in Paris. With every description, I found myself transported back to my time trying to walk the tightrope of assimilating to life in France without losing myself in the process. As Khayyam struggles to interpret how many cheek kisses she is expected to deliver when greeting someone new, I cringe with recognition. As she bites into a perfect pastry, I drool with remembered longing. This is a beautiful and very realistic portrait of what it feels like to be la petite Americaine in Paris.
Slightly less realistic are some of the escapades that Khayyam and Alexandre get into while sleuthing their way though art history. I've also spent time working in historic house museums, and believe me, I deeply wish that there were unopened drawers filled with undiscovered letters and the artifacts conveniently referenced within them, and secret rooms packed with treasures left untouched during renovations, all ripe for the discovery. But alas, as buildings withstand the tests of time, their secrets are usually lost. Khayyam and Alexander are also guilty of pillaging archival materials and damaging both artifacts and historic structures, which stressed me the heck out. Where are your white gloves, you teenage ruffians!? Put that back immediately and call a curator!
The fact that this got me so worked up is a testament to what a lively, passionate, and engaging book this is. Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know examines issues of cultural identity and racism both as they existed in the past and still manifest today, and asks the reader to think about legacy and which stories are passed down through time — all while indulging in a romantic amateur sleuthing adventure.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books andQuill & Quire.