Khayyam's summer is off to a bad start. Her boyfriend Zaid is back in Chicago, posing up a storm with beautiful girls in precarious positions on Insta, and her academic career is over even before it even started. Fresh off the humiliation of trying to prove an art theory correct for an essay at her dream college (spoiler alert- she doesn't), she and her family are in Paris for the month. It's a tradition. Her parents are academics who have the month of August off, and her father is French, which makes her more than just a Muslim American girl with brown skin. Discouraged by her lackluster introduction into the academia of art and the possibility of her boyfriend cheating on her, she's immediately cheered up by a chance meeting, albeit embarrassing one since she was wiping off dog poo from her shoes, with a boy named Alexander Dumas. She cannot believe the coincidence since the failed essay just happened to be her trying to prove the existence of a connection between Alexandre Dumas, the famous french writer, and the artist Delacroix. This boy is an ACTUAL descendant of Dumas, and he's here, talking to her. The two strike up a conversation, and she and Alexandre are quickly immersed in her disproved theory. Except, maybe she WAS on to something.
Centuries before Khayyam and Alexandre existed, there was Leila. A favorite in the Pasha's harem, she is destined to be a slave, but her secret love spurs her on. When she is asked to be a spy of sorts to a poet of all people, she has no choice but to accept. Little did she know the connection she would make with Lord Byron would change her fate. Her destiny is sealed when she sees her lover killed by the Pasha, and an attempt on her own life fails. She steals away with Byron and Dumas, leaving her beloved country behind. It is Lelia, a woman whom Byron dubs "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," a moniker previously bestowed onto him, whose story Khayyam desperately wants to tell. She and Alexandre hunt through relics of the Dumas family, old hotels, and his crowning jewel, the Chateau de Monte-Cristo, where the paths of the present and past intersect. Their sleuthing pays off, but Khayyam isn't so sure what to do once the truth is out.
This story dabbles in many genres, including mystery, romance, diversity, minority voices, coming of age, and historical fiction. There were times when Kheyyam's actions in her love life made me cringe, but I loved her passion for telling (or not tell) Leila's story. The blend of the poets, writers, and author's lives and connection to Leila made it feel like the truth, not fiction. This unique approach to history made me think of a few other stories, like Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly and The Hidden Memory of Objects by Danielle Mages Amato. #writeherstory is a fantastic hashtag, and I can absolutely get behind Samira Ahmed's message. Be sure to check out her author's notes.
I'm on a plane to Paris once this mess is all over- definintely stopping here!
The Chateau de Monte-Cristo, the Moorish Salon, and Chateau d'If: