by Rana Asfour
This book will be released on April 7, 2020
When readers first meet seventeen-year-old Muslim biracial Khayyam Maquet on the first page of Samira Ahmed’s latest YA novel, ‘Mad Bad & Dangerous to Know’, she’s in Paris, on her family’s annual month-long stay in the City of Love ‘staring at her phone screen, looking for love but knowing it’s not going to show up’. Khayyam’s life is in teen chaos: she’s unsure where she stands with her boyfriend Zaid, her submission for an essay contest on a lost Delacroix painting gifted to Alexandre Dumas supposedly screwed up her chances of getting into her dream college, she’s ‘captive’ in a humid city in which ‘air-conditioning is mostly aspirational’ and her best friend Julie is on a ‘dark-ages, technology-free’ family holiday and is thus unreachable. Essentially, where Kayyam would rather be is at home, in Chicago, ‘stewing in self-doubt and woe-is-me pity’.
However, a coincidental encounter, right on the heels of an unfortunate incident involving her All-Stars, with the sixth great grandson of Alexandre Dumas, also called Alexandre Dumas, changes everything. A few years older than Khayyam and on his second year at the École de Louvre, he might just be the one to help her turn her fortunes around. So she takes a chance and tells him all about her essay and together they agree to pursue the search for the lost painting – aided by material from his uncle - in order for Khayyam to redeem herself and get a second chance at proving her worth as a future art historian to dragon head judge Celenia Mondego.
The novel then shifts to Muslim teen Leila, raised two hundred years ago in the Pasha’s harem as his ‘Haseki’. As she tells her own story, we learn of an extraordinary woman, supposedly the muse behind some of the 19th Century’s greatest art and literary works by Delacroix, Dumas and Lord Byron; a woman who in her desire to be free and in her refusal to allow her name to be ‘buried under dirt’ risks everything.
As Khayyam and Alexandre try to unravel the Parisian mystery of the missing Delacroix painting and as they stumble to make the connection with Laila’s role in the story, their own romantic drama plays out. Despite their obvious attraction to each other, we discover that one of them may not have been honest about the real personal motives driving them to solve what seems to be a despairing mystery.
And now, let there be no doubt that Khayyam – named after Sufi poet Omar Khayyam – is a kick ass fierce female character - a sassy American Indian version of Nancy Drew. Despite the predictable teen dramas and dramatic young love woes, this is a teen very woke on issues such as Orientalism, Colonialism and Feminism. She is a champion of women’s voices and Leila could not have hoped for a more passionate, most ferocious female advocate for her story. Samira Ahmed excels at tracing ‘the lives of two young women fighting to write their own stories and escape the pressure of cultural expectations in worlds too long defined by men’.
Also, racial themes and the notion of ‘otherness’ permeate the novel. Many forget that writer Alexandre Dumas’ father was bi-racial: son to a Noble French father and a slave Haitian mother. Although Alexandre Dumas (the first) got to return to France with his father, he suffered much racial discrimination and when he opted to join the army, he was urged to adopt his mother’s name – Dumas – to avoid embarrassing his father. His son, also named Alexandre Dumas, one of France’s greatest writers, was only permitted burial in the Pantheon in 2002, because he was Black.
The novel is great for fans of art history, romance, and historical fiction. Ages 14 - Adult, 336 pages