February 2, 2008

Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell
Historical FictionCopyright 2008
Finished on 1/22/08
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
ARC - Tentative On-Sale Date: March 4, 2008

Book Description

“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.

About the AuthorMary Doria Russell is the author of The Sparrow, Children of God, and A Thread of Grace. Her novels have won nine national and international literary awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the James Tiptree Award, and the American Library Association Readers Choice Award. The Sparrow was selected as one of Entertainment Weekly’s ten best books of the year, and A Thread of Grace was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Russell lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

When I heard that Mary Doria Russell had a new book coming out this spring, I did a Snoopy-dance for joy! I met Mary (yes, I like to think that we're on a first-name basis, although I highly doubt she would recognize me in a crowd) ten years ago this summer at a small book conference in Cleveland. I had just read her first novel, The Sparrow; probably the first science fiction book I'd ever read—well, with the exception of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine (which I read back in junior high in 1975). I loved The Sparrow (it remains one of my all-time favorites) and was thrilled to meet the author at such an intimate gathering. When I heard about Dreamers of the Day, I decided to send Ms. Russell an email and see if I could possibly get an Advanced Reader Copy. Well, in addition to a lovely response, I was thrilled to receive a copy of the Advanced Uncorrected Proofs of the novel. (Is this different than an ARC?) I felt quite honored and didn't want to let the book languish on my shelves as so many other ARCs have been known to do in this house. With a couple of long flights to (and from) Virginia Beach pending, I knew this would be just the book to pack in my carry-on.

I began the book a couple of nights before our departure, not wanting to start en route, as that's always a bit distracting and I wanted to be eager to resume my reading once we took off. I was far enough along to feel a sense of anticipation as we boarded the plane in Omaha, anxious to settle into my seat and my book! My poor husband. Throughout the entire flight to Dallas and then on to Norfolk, I kept interrupting his own reading with exclamations of enthusiasm: "This is such a good book!" "What a great read!" "Have I told you how wonderful this book is?" "Did you know this?" "Were you aware of that?" "Hey, you've got to read this passage!" And on and on and on.

I must confess, I'm a bit relieved that I wound up enjoying this book as much as I did. When I first read the plot description (and Mary's comments in her email to me), I was a bit intimidated by the subject matter. I am not well-versed in the history of the Middle East history or in its politics. As a matter of fact, I'm quite ignorant of most of the history of that region. However, I got so wrapped up in Agnes' story, I found myself zipping along through all the factual information, eager to learn and understand more about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. Of course I had heard of T.E. "Lawrence of Arabia", but had no idea he'd been involved in the creation of the modern Middle East (along with Winston Churchill and Lady Gertrude Bell). There were a few instances in which I felt a bit confused by some of the historical facts, but I decided to sit back, continue reading, and not try to turn the reading into a history lesson. Having said that, my copy of the book is full of Post-It flags and highlighted passages. I am actually considering a re-read of the novel when it comes out in hardcover, as I'd love to own a real copy of the book. Now that I know the fictional side of the book, I'd like to focus more on the facts. In addition to a re-read, I plan to read Janet Wallach's bio of Gertrude Bell, Desert Queen and Assignment: Churchill by Walter H. Thompson (Churchill's bodyguard during that period). I'm also considering a read of The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry. I was quite intrigued by the details about the influenza epidemic in Russell's novel. And finally, if I'm ever feeling bold enough to further educate myself, I might just have to read A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin (although after a quick skim of this earlier today, it might be a bit dense). And, now that I think of it, I should add Lawrence of Arabia to my Netflix queue!

Dreamers of the Day has a bit of everything: history, romance, humor, even a bit of mystery. As with The Sparrow, the characters and situations will remain in my memory for years to come. Kudos, Ms. Russell! You've got yourself another winner! Nice to see I have something for my Top Ten of 2008 so early in year.

To read an excerpt from the book or for book tour information, go here.


  1. Anonymous8:21 PM

    I'm glad you liked this one. Great review. I have an arc also that someone gave me and I look forward to settling down with this at some point. It sounds quite fascinating.

  2. I will look forward to reading this one. Your excitement for it is contagious.

  3. I'm so glad you liked it. I know how much you enjoyed The Sparrow.

  4. I have just started reading my arc -- I tend to let them languish too and I was NOT going to do that with this book. I'm enjoying it and, it's funny, I was also inspired to add same book about influenza that you are reading to my tbr pile.

  5. Anonymous6:38 PM

    The Sparrow is one of my very favorite books and I never, ever read science fiction. Russell is brilliant. Thanks for the review.


  6. Anonymous8:57 PM

    Hi Lesley,
    have enjoyed your blog and in partticular, your reviews. I'm so looking forward to this book. The region has recently become fascinating to me and she wrote one of my favorites-The Sparrow

  7. I think this is the mark of a successful work of historical fiction - that it sends the readers off to read nonfiction.

  8. Anonymous12:36 PM


    Does this book dabble in Sci_Fi as well? It sounds grand and like one I would read if there isn't any sci-fi to it.

    You always do such thoughtful, organized, excellent reviews...that is why I love your blog. You were born to blog!!


  9. Kay - I'm still thinking about this book! I wish I had had the time to sit down and read it a second time right away, but other books were calling. I think I'll have to plan a summer of re-reads. Hmmm, don't I say that every year??

    I'll be anxious to hear your thoughts on the book. I wish you had been able to meet Mary with the rest of us back in '98!

    Booklogged - It's such a good book. I miss Agnes and Rosie!!

    Andi - The Sparrow remains my favorite of all her books, but this one is a very close 2nd. Lots of wonderful history.

    Katya - Oooh! I'll have to pop over and read your review once you get it posted. Isn't it a great read? That is funny that you were also inspired to read more about influenza.

    Mary - I agree. Russell is brilliant. I remember being extremely impressed that she created a language for The Sparrow. I hope you get a chance to read this novel.

    Lisa - Thank you for your nice comment. I'm glad you're enjoying my blog. Do you have one (or a web page)?

    I think you'll find Dreamers of the Day to be just as good as The Sparrow. The characters are so well-drawn and memorable. I think I'll always remember Agnes, just as I'll always remember Sandoz and Sophia.

    Nan - I think you're right!

    Gayla - Nope, no sci-fi in this one. And, since we usually agree on the same books, I'm fairly certain this is one you'll enjoy.

    Thank you for your sweet compliment about my blogging. I wish I had more time to do more with it. I need to figure out a way to make a living with it! ;)

  10. Great review, Les! I would never have thought to actually ask for an ARC.

  11. I keep saying I am going to read Mary Doria Russell and (this will come as no big surprise)I have a couple of her books in the towering TBR mountain. This may be just the book that will make me finally read this author. Thanks so much for the great review.

  12. I waiting for a copy of this from my library. It sounds great and I'm glad to hear you liked it!

  13. Nancy - I don't think I'd feel comfortable asking just anyone for an ARC. But since I had met Ms. Russell, and am a huge fan of her writing, I felt compelled to at least give it a shot. What's the worst she could say? No? I figure it doesn't hurt to ask.

    Glad you enjoyed the review. It's a fabulous book. My husband's reading it now and keeps saying what an incredible writer Ms. Russell is. Yep.

    Maudeen - This one is such a winner. I can't wait for my husband to finish so we can chat about it.

    If you have a copy of The Sparrow in your stacks, don't be put-off by the Sci-Fi label. Especially if that's not your cuppa. Yes, it's a sci-fi novel, but it's also intriguing look at belief systems, with an incredible cast of characters. I bought close to a dozen copies the year it came out in paperback to give to friends and relatives for Christmas. Every single recipient later wrote and told me how much they loved the book. I think it's one you'll love, too!

    Danielle - Enjoy! I have a feeling it's going to be a bestseller!

  14. Hi Lesley,

    Thanks for this review, it sounds awesome. I just added it to my TBR.

  15. This looks like a great book. I will be looking for it when it comes out for sale. I think I might look for The Sparrow based on yours and your commenter's thoughts. I am the only one in my family who doesn't read science fiction. Thanks for the review!

  16. Teddy Rose - I hope you enjoy it. I can't wait for it to come out so I can start recommending it to customers at work (B&N).

    Kim - I envy you getting to read The Sparrow for the first time. It's one of those books that I continue to think about and it's been 10 years since I read it! I must find the time to give it a second reading. Hope you enjoy both of these books.

  17. Hey Les, I just bought this the other day. I remembered your rave, and thought I'd be daring and take my chances on seeing Mr. C. in a negative view. :<) I'll let Rod know if I could bear it! I am very, very interested in this period and this place, and when I finish, I want to look into the other books you mentioned. I can't remember if you've read the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters - I don't think so? These books gave me a never ending love for the area and time.

  18. Nan - One of my local friends went on to read a bio about Gertrude Bell after reading this novel and loved it. It's a fascinating time in our history, isn't it?

    No, I haven't read any of the Peters' books, but I know how much you've enjoyed them over the years. I'll have to give the first one a try. There are quite a few in the series, aren't there?

  19. I just looked up GB and there is a lot of great info to read, including a report from NPR. Thanks. And there are like a zillion Amelia Peabody books. :<) Here is a list with the most recent listed first:


    New book comes out next year:


  20. Nan - Thanks for the list. I'll print it out so I can be sure to read them order. :)


I may not answer your comments in a timely fashion, but I always answer. Check back soon!