Read + Review, Teen Reviews

Read + Review: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed

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After humiliating herself and nearly ruining her odds at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the last thing Khayyam Maquet wants to do is relax in France during her summer vacation. The annual family holiday in Paris is something that Khayyam should look forward to, but after being burned by a judge for her scholarship essay, all Khayyam can think about is how to rewrite her submission. Add Khayyam’s so-called boyfriend Zaid, who suddenly stopped communicating with her, and it almost seems impossible for Khayyam to enjoy herself. A chance encounter changes everything when she meets Alexandre Dumas, the descendant of the famous writer with the same name. Khayyam, an aspiring art historian, is thrilled, considering how the original Dumas was a topic in her failed essay. When they discover a connection between Dumas, Delacroix (a renowned painter), Lord Byron (a famed poet), and a Muslim woman named Leila forgotten to history, Khayyam is determined to solve the mystery of the woman’s story. Together with Alexandre, Khayyam searches throughout Paris for clues and embarks on a journey of revelation while exploring her identity. Switching back and forth between Khayyam in present day and the enigmatic Leila of the nineteenth century, this story takes a look at the struggles of two young women making their mark on history.

I like how Khayyam was French, Muslim, Indian, and American, and how her complex identity makes up who she was. Her feelings of not being able to completely fit into any of those groups is relatable. I like how witty and clever Khayyam was, and Khayyam’s dialogue with other characters was usually amusing to read. Khayyam’s disdain of colonialism and orientalism is also something I appreciate. The author’s detailed writing style made it easier to envision the story happening, and doesn’t take away from the moment. This is where things start going a bit downhill for me. Much of the plot can only be described as unbelievable. There are numerous instances that require suspension of disbelief, especially regarding the historical hunt where everything feels straightforward and convenient. History is a field of study that requires great research and substantial evidence to transform ideas into facts; both of these elements in this book are a bit weak, which is why I can’t accept this book’s attempt at creating a realistic discovery of the forgotten past. Despite the characters being intriguing, I didn’t really connect with them. Zaid has few character traits besides being sketchy and while Alexandre is mildly likeable, in the end he falls a little flat. Khayyam’s parents are generally happy and perfect at saying the right things to Khayyam. However, they aren’t in the story enough for me to get attached and thus they lack some depth. They also seem a little too relaxed, letting their seventeen-year-old daughter roam around Paris alone or with a friend she just made that summer. Although I previously stated that I liked some things about Khayyam, there were other things that bothered me too much to fully enjoy her character. First, her constant feminist comments started to annoy me. Of course, feminism itself isn’t bad and I know it is one of this book’s themes, but when it’s forced into the majority of the conversations Khayyam has, it gets redundant. I even sometimes felt this way about some of Khayyam’s remarks on colonialism and orientalism, despite liking the general attitude. I wish the author made her point in a way that didn’t feel overdone. Second, Khayyam is extremely trusting, to the point where she seems too naive. In the past, she hadn’t seen through Zaid despite his shady behavior. In the present, she randomly comes across this stranger who happens to be related to Dumas and almost right after, they exchange phone numbers. I can’t think of any good reason for why she wasn’t more cautious around Alexandre. These thoughts, juxtaposed with Khayyam’s almost immediate attraction to him, make it jarring to read and puzzling to understand. Third, Khayyam’s behavior is questionable. She is upset with how unclear her relationship with Zaid is, but instead of being direct with him, Khayyam instead moves onto Alexandre and even uses him to make Zaid jealous. Despite not liking how Zaid plays mind games, Khayyam does the same. Moving onto Leila, my main complaint is that her story was short. When I first read the original synopsis, I expected that I would be reading a novel split between the two heroines’ perspective. In reality, there are only a few pages at the most whenever the book shifts to Leila’s narrative while Khayyam usually has full chapters. The brevity made Leila’s story seem less important than Khayyam’s, and the briefness also made Leila’s character too distant for me to care about her. What’s even more baffling is how concerned Khayyam is with Leila and her story. Maybe that’s just how Khayyam is, but if the author had given the reader an opportunity to actually connect with Leila, I feel that I wouldn’t have been as uninterested with Leila’s story and I would’ve understood Khayyam’s passion for learning about this unknown woman. The story’s shortness, plus its formal writing style, makes Leila’s side of things overall a bit dull. As for the rest of the historical content (regarding Dumas, Delacroix, and Lord Byron), I only had a vague idea of their significance. Only those who were familiar with at least one of the men could somewhat follow. Being a person who hadn’t really known any of them, it was all hard to keep track of. I especially got lost in the areas of the story where the historical content is rather dense. This was another part of the story that wasn’t as interesting, and it made me care less about the historical mystery. I wish the author exposed the reader to those famous men in an intriguing way so that I could understand the great enthusiasm Khayyam had for this part of the past. All things considered, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know isn’t awful, but it definitely has flaws that lower its quality. I would probably give it a few decimal points above three stars, but I wasn’t feeling generous to round up to four stars. Frankly, it already feels a little generous putting it at three stars.

One memorable thing about this book is the themes. If the author’s goal was to leave the reader remembering her thoughts on sexism, colonialism, and orientalism, she definitely succeeded. I have difficulty recalling much of the historical aspects and how the information Khayyam and Alexandre found was significant in their journey, but I don’t think I’ll be forgetting her points anytime soon. While it was irritating how the execution was handled, these themes are still important and worth reflecting over.

Reviewed by Christine, Twin Hickory Library

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