I am very grouchy about this book, even though I was very excited at first to finally get my hands on this YA novel featuring feminist Muslim heroines. Samira Ahmed’s Mad, Bad & Dangerous To Know marries an intriguing high concept with a narrative that prefers to tell instead of show and relentlessly strikes dramatic poses with little depth or substance to back them up. I should know by now that mysteries diving into art and literary history are almost always going to disappoint me, but I keep holding out hope that this next one will be worth my time. MB&DtK, alas, was not.
The concept was undoubtedly v cool: French-Indian-American-Muslim Khayyam Maquet is spending the summer in Paris, as she has every of the 17 years of her life so far, in the apartment her academic parents inherited from her father’s side of the family. She’s feeling pretty glum, as she’s just spectacularly crashed and burned in an art history essay meant to impress the Art Institute of Chicago, on the possible connection between writer Alexandre Dumas and painter Eugene Delacroix. Plus, her maybe boyfriend Zaid is off to college in the fall and has been taking lots of up close and personal Instagram selfies with any number of their good-looking female mutuals back home in Illinois while she’s away.
So when Khayyam has a meet-cute with an actual living descendent of Dumas who also happens to be his very good-looking, very age-appropriate-for-her namesake, she can’t help feeling that life is giving her a sign. Alexandre is intrigued by her ideas regarding his ancestor, and the two soon embark on a semi-legal journey to uncover the truth, one that seemingly involves a raven-haired woman named Leila. Along the way, Khayyam revenge posts a few selfies of herself and Alexandre being adorable, causing Zaid to reconsider his inattention to her. Interwoven with Khayyam’s story is Leila’s tale, offering subtle parallels to the 21st century shenanigans.
Really great bones here, but Ms Ahmed fleshes the rest of the book out really poorly, opting to tell instead of show for far too much of the narrative. Not only are we treated to large info dumps regarding Dumas and French history and culture — and I love reading about France, so it’s not like I wasn’t predisposed to enjoying all this — but we’re also subjected to Khayyam’s incredibly annoying, incredibly immature worldview. I love that she’s feminist and class- and race-conscious, but she’s always either berating the also feminist Alexandre or getting really angry at people who’ve been dead for centuries for not being as progressive as she is. It’s performative tantruming that serves no purpose besides exhausting the reader. Worse, she’s constantly getting mad at people for pulling the exact same shit she’s pulling. I reached my absolute limit with her when she decided to interpret the words of a long-dead person in the most restrictive way possible, at the expense of living, breathing people desperate to save their family and national legacy. She’s sensitive without being empathetic, which is just the most selfish, irritating combo.
And the worst part is that the person whose story she’s trying to protect? promote? is just wildly uninteresting, at least the way Ms Ahmed writes her. Why does Leila love the Giaour? (And why does the poor bastard never get a name besides a mild pejorative?) What’s the deal with Si’la? How can any writer make the story of Leila’s escape from the harem and Turkey so crushingly dull? And what, exactly, has Leila done to make her so worthy of celebration? She has no apparent talent or interests besides her lover, no record or even hint of good works: Khayyam wants her story to be told but “being a muse who pines for a lost love” is a tale hardly worthy of an anecdote, much less a chapter. Leila’s viewpoint chapters are almost distressingly thin, explaining nothing while demanding that we root for her, which is not how fiction works. Leila’s story is too much like a painting, flat on the canvas and, while decorative, no match for the power of well-written words, which these are not.
If you want to check this out regardless, here’s a link, but don’t say I didn’t warn you:
Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.