DECEMBER 19, 2020
SAMIRA AHMED’S young adult novel Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know evokes the mysterious woman at the center of Lord Byron’s 1813 poem The Giaour. Leila is the favored concubine in the court of a Turkish pasha who falls in love with the Giaour (or “infidel”), a non-Muslim man she visits in a rose garden at night. As Leila plots her doomed escape, Ahmed gives Byron’s Orientalized woman a narrative, an identity, and a voice.
Flash forward to the 21st century. Khayyam, spending a summer in Paris before her senior year in high school, is nursing a grievance after her submission to an art history contest is exposed as an unintended sham. As she puts it, “a single sentence in a twenty-yearold article about Delacroix I found online” led her “down a rabbit hole. Apparently fake news is also old news.” An American-born girl with an Indian Muslim mother and a French father, Khayyam struggles with her mixed heritage and identity as a South Asian woman of color, attempting to reclaim her own voice so that she isn’t “a blank page that everyone else gets to write on.” On a Paris street, she runs into Alexandre, a good-looking French college student, who is also a descendant of Alexandre Dumas, the mixed-race author of The Count of Monte Cristo. When Khayyam visits her new acquaintance’s apartment, she realizes that there is more to her failed art-world discovery than she initially realized. She just needs to do more digging.
Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know thus unravels in two threads: Khayyam’s journey of romance and identity, and Leila’s struggle to escape human bondage. The threads converge when Khayyam finds clues linking her to Leila, a historical figure objectified and romanticized by famous men, including Byron and Delacroix. For these male artists, Leila exists only to spark the epic fight between the Giaour and the pasha, thus symbolizing the tragedy of mismatched love; the actual Muslim woman at the center of the story cannot speak, much less advocate for herself.
This silencing of Leila spurs Khayyam’s quest to restore the forgotten woman’s voice. An educated, modern girl born in more fortunate circumstances, Khayyam has the privilege to act as scholar and explorer, and her search for Leila is driven by careerist ambition, principally the thirst to redeem herself after her contest faux pas. Khayyam’s access to the past is facilitated by Alexandre, who has access to a trove of archival information due to his descent from the famous writer. Khayyam and Alexandre learn that the latter’s ancestor knew Leila, calling her “la belle dame de cheveux raven” (“the beautiful woman with raven hair”), and participated with her in hash-induced séances in a baroque hotel.
Alexandre, passionate about preserving his family legacy, assists Khayyam in her research: the duo break into buildings, have escapades in libraries, and generally engage in a surprisingly scholarly adventure that pays homage to Gen Z’s intellectual drive and curiosity. What begins as a thrilling chase, sparked by Khayyam’s stubborn ambition to make a name for herself as an aspiring art historian, transforms into “[a] pinch of melancholy” as she unearths the hardship of Leila’s life, which was not the swashbuckling romance depicted by Byron but rather an immigrant woman’s harrowing fight for survival.
As Khayyam and Alexandre connect the pieces of the puzzle, Leila plots her escape in the past. Allusions to The Count of Monte Cristo trail her journey. When the pasha learns she has been unfaithful to him, she is bound in a sack and thrown into the Bosphorus, thus paralleling Edmond Dantès’s near-lethal escape from prison after being unjustly jailed for years. Likewise, the shrewdness with which Leila navigates the politics of the harem mirrors Dantès’s canny scheming, such as when he frees and later marries the Greek slave-girl Haydée.
Yet, while Ahmed succeeds in giving an unknown, albeit fictional, woman a voice, she fails to deconstruct the Orientalist narrative that animates Byron’s poem. Indeed, her treatment works to reinforce the ethnocentric vision of the jealous, tyrannical Muslim man from whom the Muslim woman must be saved. Leila’s survival, too, is unrealistic, verging on exoticized myth when a guardian jinn (a fire spirit in Islamic lore) saves her from certain death. Even as she resists her destiny, miraculously escaping to Europe, Leila is still represented as a victim of her culture.
Ahmed’s characterization of Khayyam is far more nuanced: she is shown as a flawed, intelligent human being. Her passion for art history is balanced by her attraction to boys, and the insecurity she feels about her future is relatable for many young people dealing with the pressure of college admissions. And yet, Ahmed’s description of Khayyam’s politics and identity tends at times to be a little too on the nose: the rote refrain that being a feminist “means you believe in equality and that you’ll fight for it,” or the overtly signaled act of checking one’s privilege lacks the subtlety and empathy of real life. Culture and identity are not substitutes for emotion or personality, and the beginning of the novel relies too much on Khayyam’s confusions about her mixed ethnic background as a crutch for character-building. For example, Khayyam’s experience of shame when she wears a swimsuit on the beach is attributed to her South Asian sense of respectability rather than simply being the self-conscious discomfort of any young girl.
But Khayyam’s character truly emerges after she discovers Alexandre, whom she has been casually dating, with another girl. In a moment of romantic vulnerability, Khayyam is forced to reckon with who she really is — a “girl in a Notorious RBG T-shirt, dark skinny jeans, and All-Stars the color of a robin’s egg.” Khayyam’s core American-ness, so distant from the chic mannerisms of the French, comes to the fore. When her ex-boyfriend arrives in Paris, she is forced to choose between the two young men.
Yet, rather than emphasize this romantic triangle, as so many YA novels would do, Ahmed instead foregrounds Khayyam’s scholarly ambitions as the budding art student chooses to prioritize her search for Leila. The love story recedes into the background, and Khayyam’s connection with Leila becomes a living, breathing reality as she stumbles across serendipitous discoveries that seem to offer proof of the raven-haired woman’s existence. “There is so much unrequited love and straight-up tragedy in these notes and letters,” Khayyam observes about her research, “that it makes my troubles seem small.” The ghostly bond between the two women, and Khayyam’s intellectual prowess, redeem the novel’s uninspiring passages; ultimately, what the reader remembers is the journey of a smart, assertive heroine who is driven to recover the voice of a woman neglected by history.