Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed (Soho Teen 2020)
Reviewed by Maayan D’Antonio
17-year-old Khayyam Maquet—American, French, Indian, Muslim—is spending her August sulking around Paris. Her essay to her dream school, The Art Institute of Chicago, wasn’t received well by the committee, derailing her chances of getting in. On top of that, her maybe ex-boyfriend, Zaid, is ghosting her. Just when everything feels exceptionally crappy, and Khayyam literally steps in crap, she meets Alexander, the descendant of the famous French writer Alexander Dumas.
Khayyam and Alexander hunt for what they believe to be a missing Delacroix painting that the artist may have gifted to Alexander Dumas. Khayyam starts to connect with an enigmatic 19th-century Muslim woman, whose path may have intersected with Dumas, Delacroix and Lord Byron. Leila, a harem girl, is struggling to survive while keeping her love for another man hidden from her Pasha—who has “gifted” her his favor, for now. Across time, these two women’s stories intertwine as Khayyam fights to find Leila’s voice and separate it from what men have made her out to be.
Ahmed (Love, Hate & Other Filters, 2019) has brought to the forefront the idea that saying “behind every great man, there’s a great woman” is no longer the way forward. Men have taken inspiration from women throughout history, claiming them, more often than not, as their own—as will become clear to Khayyam in her search for Leila. Ahmed deals with a relevant issue in the 21st-century: that these past women were people, with their own lives and their own stories that need to be told. They deserve to be heard, even if it means unraveling history.
Khayyam, though determined to find a way to make up for her failed essay, finds herself in an odd love triangle. At first, she finds herself wallowing over Zaid and his many Instagram girls. Soon Khayyam posts photos of her with Alexander on her own Instagram page. Although she hopes that this will flush out Zaid, she finds that her feelings for Alexander are growing. But like all love triangles, this one lands Khayyam in a bigger mess than she started with.
As the book progresses, Khayyam’s internal struggles between the two boys—though insightful and relatable—seem to take up more of the storytelling than needed. Though the narrative shifts from Khayyam’s to Leila’s perspective, there still could have been a little less love triangle and Instagram activity and more delving into the rich historic setting of Leila’s story and the mystery that shrouds her.
That being said, the story does progress at a satisfying pace, each clue fluidly leading Khayyam and Alexander to the next, creating the momentum a reader craves from good story telling. The story’s beauty will captivate readers, just as Leila’s beauty captivated more than one artist’s eye, and perhaps heart.
The more Khayyam learns about Leila’s story the more she grows protective of this woman. Khayyam is not entirely sure that Leila would have wanted her story told. Khayyam is also wary of how men will use Leila’s in the present. #Tellherstory is a reminder that even when the truth is discovered, it can still be shaped the way others want it to be, so it will best serve them and their needs. One must stay vigilant and carry on the fight to change that narrative, no matter who it makes uncomfortable.