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Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed

A tale of two girls wanting to overcome cultural expectations



Synopsis: Khayyam Maquet has never quite felt like she belonged. Her heritage is American, French, Indian and Muslim. She has been raised in Chicago, spending summer vacations in Paris and speaks multiple languages. These things that sound impressive (at least to me!) have felt oppressive to her. She has always felt like she has no voice, and felt judged for her differences. She wants to change that.


A daughter of two college professors, Khayyam is intelligent and driven by a thirst for knowledge. For her college application to an art history program, she writes a paper on Alexandre Dumas and his connection to a famous painting by Eugene Delecroix, which is based on a poem by Lord Byron, that doesn't get her the praise she hoped for. In a bout of kismet during her family's summer vacation to Paris, she meets Alexandre Dumas, the six time great grandson of the famous author.


As Khayyam and Alexandre discuss the famous painting, she points out that in Lord Byron's poem, on which the painting is based, in over 9,000 words, the woman gets no speaking parts. The poem is about her, and yet she has no voice. That woman's name was Leila.

Leila holds the spot of honor in the Pasha's harem. But she knows this position only appears powerful. In truth, she feels like she has no voice.


She finds solace in a secret garden down the Passage of Concubines - where she also meets with her lover!


When Leila falls out of favor with her Pasha, for not bearing him any children, her life may be in danger. Then, she is assigned to a visiting poet, none other than Lord Byron, who rumor has it is, "mad, bad and dangerous to know."

Spurred by a shared interest in the Dumas history, Khayyam and Alexandre embark on a quest for answers to one of art history's greatest mysteries. Told from the alternating view points of Khayyam and Leila, this book is full of history, speculation, feminism, love, and the importance of having a voice. "This is one thing women can do for one another - amplify the voices of our sisters that were silenced because the world told them their stories didn't matter."


My thoughts/feelings: I LOVED Khayyam. She is a self proclaimed nerd -like me. Her passion is art history and while I could take or leave the art aspect, history is one of my favorite subjects, too (after psychology). She describes it as "an academic time machine." LOVE IT! All the French food they eat - Now I need to go to Paris and eat all the things!


One of my favorite things to read about is harems and concubines. Their world seems so beautiful, so seductive, and yet most stories from within the harems are laced with loneliness, heartache and sadness. But don't worry - if this topic doesn't interest you, know that it is not discussed in great detail!


I loved that this book not only mentions the different countries and cultures, but gives examples of their differences and how it is difficult for the main character to keep the customs of each straight, making it difficult to fit in perfectly when she's with each group. One of the many examples is punctuality - Americans tend to prefer being early, French tend to think being early is rude, and around 15 minutes late is their norm, and Indian weddings start an hour late - which is normal and acceptable.


This book quickly made it onto my list of favorites for the entire year of 2020.



Favorite Quotes:

"But I'm not a blank page that everyone else gets to write on. I have my own voice. I have my own story. I have my own name."


"Extraordinary events are basically chance plus time."


"I'm a bunch of disparate parts that aren't enough to make a whole. But I'm trying to stop caring about what everyone else thinks about me. I am enough."


"Coincidences feel like magic, but they're just math."


"You are the queen of your own fate."


"For what in the end are we but stories?"

Thank you to NetGalley, Soho Teen and Samira Ahmed for the Arc of Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know in exchange for my honest review.

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