Spoilers will start after the short summary during the extended review:
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.
Why I was interested: The idea of having a modern girl go on a treasure hunt in Paris steeped in art history thrilled me. I also love this idea that Khayyam is learning who she is in the midst of this.
Judge a book by it’s cover: This cover showcases both Khayyam and Leila as well as Paris. It just feels like a Khayyam is reading (and possibly writing) letters to Leila as she digs into who this woman was.
What to expect: A dual POV that dives into art, Colonialism, Orientalism, feminism, and how we can help unearth history.
Why you should pick this book up: I have yet to read about a book that acknowledges Orientalism is Colonialism – especially through a modern lens that addresses how women are forgotten in history and the ability to reclaim that identity.
ATTENTION: IF YOU HAVE YET TO READ MAD, BAD & DANGEROUS TO KNOW do not continue reading. The following contains spoilers for the book.
When you read MAD, BAD & DANGEROUS TO KNOW, it is not shy about women supporting other women or letting women have the chance to speak for themselves – or not if they choose to. Khayyam is a very determined girl who feels at a crossroads within her own heritages and how her interests in becoming an art historian relates to these feelings. Leila is living about 150 years in the past, but is a bold character who wants what is best for her and her lover, the Giaour. While Ahmed writes from both character’s POVs and learn of both girls’ stories, it is just as important that Khayyam is determined to let Leila speak on her own behalf.
It is understood that often history is written by the victor and often written about white men. Women and People of Color are often left out of the narrative or are included via an external light of perception – as seen with the era of Orientalism. MB&DTK addresses these ideas as Leila’s story is written about by Lord Byron, painted by Delacroix, and explained in letters by Alexandre Dumas. But it is not until the very end that Leila is given the opportunity to explain her story through what Khayyam finds.
But Khayyam at first even is determined to find Leila’s story for her own gain: to prove she is not a dilettante and that her art history research has clout. She wants to be able to prove what she can do and that it will help her get into the art school of her choice. However Khayyam has always been from the beginning a feminist and grows into wanting to tell Leila’s story because the men her in life told her story for her.
This journey is an exciting one – but far from easy. And when Khayyam discovers the Delacroix painting of Leila as well as the jar of letters, Khayyam does wonder if she has the right to tell Leila’s story at all if she didn’t want it to be released in the late 1800s. As a historian, there is a weight and reflection to understand how to respect a person of the past’s life. It’s important to acknowledge these people, but it is also important to handle their lives with care. Khayyam ultimately learns how to respect Leila and the life she led as well as the knowledge shared personally and Leila is able to live her truth in the 21st century.
Ahmed’s MAD, BAD & DANGEROUS TO KNOW is a great book that addresses women’s place in history and how we are readers can help break that mold. Women and People of Color no longer have to only be in the background. Through the modern populace, we can help shed light on their stories and struggles and respect their lives today.
What did you think of Samira Ahmed’s MAD, BAD & DANGEROUS TO KNOW? I’d love to hear your comments below!
Thanks for stopping by!