February 2, 2008
Dreamers of the Day
Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell
Finished on 1/22/08
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
ARC - Tentative On-Sale Date: March 4, 2008
“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 Author
Mary 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.