Friday, March 21, 2008

Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell was published March 11, 2008 and is 249 pages. First I must admit that my review of any book by Mary Doria Russell is prejudiced. After reading her book The Sparrow, which is on my personal list of one of the best books ever written and one of a very few books that I have read, paused, and immediately read again, I am inclined to be an adoring fan of anything she writes. Even though they had a hard act to follow, Children of God, which finishes the story in The Sparrow, and A Thread of Grace, her historical fiction from 2005, all lived up to my expectations. Dreamers of the Day, I am pleased and proud to say, was excellent.

Dreamers of the Day is not The Sparrow. It is not science fiction and will not be on my exclusive best book ever written list. What it is, however, is historical fiction novel that takes a closer look at Agnes Shanklin, an unassuming, unmarried woman. It begins with her early years and the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 that wiped out her family but left her with the funds to take a trip of a lifetime to Cairo, Egypt. During this trip she became acquainted with Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence because her trip just happened to occur during what was the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, which divided up the Middle East and set into motion many of the problems we see today. The ending is rather fanciful and yet at the same time packs a message.

Russell is an excellent writer and researcher. The dialogue and plot flowed smoothly and seamlessly for me (until the very end). The dialogue is believable. The characters are well developed. The descriptions are masterful. The last section of the book, after Agnes returns to America, does feel a bit weaker than the rest of the book and most of the message part in the rather fanciful ending could have been left out. It really is an excellent book, though, and deserves a rating of 5.

Synopsis from cover:

“I suppose I ought to warn you at the outset that my present circumstances are puzzling, even to me. Nevertheless, I am sure of this much: My little story has become your history. You won’t really understand your times until you understand mine.”

So begins the account of Agnes Shanklin, the charmingly diffident narrator of Mary Doria Russell’s compelling new novel, Dreamers of the Day. And what is Miss Shanklin’s “little story?” Nothing less than the creation of the modern Middle East at the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, where Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, and Lady Gertrude Bell met to decide the fate of the Arab world–and of our own.

A forty-year-old schoolteacher from Ohio still reeling from the tragedies of the Great War and the influenza epidemic, Agnes has come into a modest inheritance that allows her to take the trip of a lifetime to Egypt and the Holy Land. Arriving at the Semiramis Hotel just as the Peace Conference convenes, Agnes, with her plainspoken American opinions–and a small, noisy dachshund named Rosie–enters into the company of the historic luminaries who will, in the space of a few days at a hotel in Cairo, invent the nations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.

Neither a pawn nor a participant at the conference, Agnes is ostensibly insignificant, and that makes her a welcome sounding board for Churchill, Lawrence, and Bell. It also makes her unexpectedly attractive to the charismatic German spy Karl Weilbacher. As Agnes observes the tumultuous inner workings of nation-building, she is drawn more and more deeply into geopolitical intrigue and toward a personal awakening.

With prose as graceful and effortless as a seductive float down the Nile, Mary Doria Russell illuminates the long, rich history of the Middle East with a story that brilliantly elucidates today’s headlines. As enlightening as it is entertaining, Dreamers of the Day is a memorable, passionate, gorgeously written novel.
"No one was more surprised than I when Professor Cutler found something in me to admire. And no one was less surprised than I when he found even more in darling Lillie to desire." pg. 13

"Without literature as a guide, I expect you think of the flu as a homey, familiar kind of illness, not a horrifying scourge like the black plague or small pox. You may believe you know what the flu epidemic was like for us.
Pray, now, that you never learn how wrong you are." pg. 20

"What would she be like if you'd let her make the most of herself instead of the least?...You always acted like her life was over before it got started." pg. 44

"It was like seeing an opal turn to diamond." pg 92

"It was such a simple idea, really, but many things seemed to click into place for me. It was not scandalous or sinful or dangerous to understand a different point of view. I had been raised to believe that to do so was to risk error at least and damnation at worst." pg. 123

"Black seeds were sown, and I'm afraid you're still bringing in the harvest. Rarely has so much been decided by so few to the detriment of so many as in that fanciful hotel back in 1921... I never imagined that decisions made then would dictate history for a hundred years or more..." pg. 248

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