Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know
Classic literature takes center stage in Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, the story of one girl’s search for the woman who inspired several of Lord Byron’s epic poems.
Khayyam Macquet believes she has just tanked her university career – and in typical teenage hyperbole can’t help wondering if that means she has tanked her whole life. She had been convinced French artist Eugène Delacroix had gifted the famous writer Alexandre Dumas a painting from his The Combat of the Giaour and Hassan series inspired by Lord Byron’s 1813 poem The Giaour. She’d submitted a “mind blowing essay” to the Young Scholar Prize at the School of Art Institute of Chicago based on that theory, which was soundly rebuffed. This puts a black mark on her application to attend that illustrious school, which just happens to be her dream college. When her family takes their annual summer trip to Paris – her professor father is French – she is bereft. Not only does this deny her the chance to fix the mess she created (if such a thing were even possible), it pulls her away from her best friend and love of her life Zaid. Forced to take a long, hot walk along the quais of the Seine River in order to reach the Courtyard Café of the Petit Palais, her favorite Parisian refuge, she finds herself stepping in dog poo. Her crappy summer has reached its shitty zenith.
Fortunately, it’s about to get a lot better. In a stroke of unbelievable luck the young man who stops to sympathize over her unfortunate doggy-doo issue is a descendant of Dumas, who is himself doing research regarding the history of his illustrious family. What are the odds? Also named Alexandre Dumas, because that isn’t in the least confusing in a book about a painting given to the writer of that name, he and Khayam quickly join forces to solve a puzzle invoked by a single sentence in one of Monsieur Dumas’ letters: Seek the woman, find the treasure. Khayyam hopes, given the province of the letter, the treasure will be a painting and her original thesis will be justified.
The story revolves around four main elements. The first is the character of Leila, the woman who inspired Byron’s epic fantasy The Giaour. She is the haseki (favorite) of a mighty Pasha and the friend of a Jinn (fairy). She has risen to a top position in the harem but she has a powerful enemy in Valide, head of the women’s court. She also has a dangerous secret – a lover who sneaks into the palace to meet her in an enchanted garden. If she is caught, she will die. Fearing every moment might be her last, Leila spots a slim chance for freedom when a handsome young Englishman comes to the court.
Leila’s tale is a retelling of Byron’s poem and is steeped in the history of the ancient middle east and magic. I loved it.
Another narrative within the novel is the chronicle of Le Club des Hachichins, of which Dumas and Delacroix were both members. This group met to take hashish, have their fortunes told and explore the spiritual realm through their enlightened senses. Their guide through these enchanted sessions is a mysterious beauty with raven tresses whom Alexandre and Khayyam believe to be the woman spoken of in the Dumas letter. Their search for her leads them through Parisian libraries, abandoned buildings, secret rooms and finally, to the Château de Monte-Cristo, the gorgeous home built by the author himself. I thoroughly enjoyed the story of Leila juxtaposed with the search for her hundreds of years later and I liked how the author used the investigation to explore her primary idea of how, “In the end, we all become stories.”
Khayyam’s tangled love life is another important feature within the novel. Because the story is told in first person, we see the relationships with Zaid and Alexandre only through her eyes, which works because the author’s primary focus isn’t the romances themselves but what Khayyam discovers about herself, men and what she wants from life and love through them. Khayyam’s relationships also serve as a soft echo of Leila’s own complicated affairs and how those alliances changed her as a person. The author does a nice job with these entanglements, showing how we grow and change through our interactions with others.
The final element driving the story was one I didn’t much enjoy. Khayyam’s personality is primarily expressed through near endless virtue signalling. It’s so blatant and prevalent that it seems as though she has no conversations where her political opinions on the subjugation of women or racism or the superiority of liberal politics don’t play some role. I would have loved it had these elements been included as a thread spun throughout the tale but the author seems to feel subtlety would be wasted on her audience and treats us to statements like,
“Zaid knows his privilege is different than mine. I’m a kid of academics who inherited an apartment in Paris that they never could have afforded. But he has uber privilege. Finance money privilege. The kind of money that may not be able to pay for a brand-new building at the school but definitely a classroom or wing. To be fair, Zaid’s parents are good about not being showy, and their politics lean left – far left – and they donate to all the right causes.”
In the same paragraph, explaining why it’s okay for her and Zaid to live in a fancy neighborhood she says, “if you’re an ostentatious, conservative prick, people call you out on it.”
Apparently her family and Zaid’s are acceptable because they are what her dad calls “gauche cavier. In the American vernacular, Limousine Liberals. “ Khayyam, who enjoys summer trips to France, attends an excellent school, and jaunts about Paris without a care to the expense of such a thing or with any idea how many families would never be able to afford the tickets, much less the taxes on the apartment that make all that possible, seems self-aware only when she is self-labeling. She lives “in the world between spaces. The borders between nations, the invisible hyphen between words, the wide chasm between “one of us” and me alone. French American. Indian American. Muslim American. Biracial. Interfaith. Child of immigrants.”
All of this makes Khayyam a sometimes uncomfortable, often preachy guide for our adventure but fortunately, the adventure is one well worth having. Fans who enjoy the dual timeline stories of authors such as Susanna Kearsley and Lauren Willig and who don’t mind having an occasionally obnoxious teen narrator accompany them on their journey through history will find a lot to love in Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know. I would also recommend it as a good introduction to some classic literature for teens who haven’t yet had the chance to be exposed to Byron or Dumas and to fans of those two writers who might enjoy this simply for the glimpses it gives us into their lives.