Title: Dreamers of the Day
Author: Mary Doria Russell
Publisher: Random House
Published: to be published March 2008
Advance Reader's copy of Dreamers of the Day graciously provided by Random House through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.
First Line: "I suppose I ought to warn you at the outset that my present circumstances are puzzling, even to me."
Dreamers of the Day is a historical novel set mostly in Egypt during the Cairo Peace Conference of 1921. Agnes Shanklin is a forty-year-old, unmarried, Ohio schoolteacher who has lived through the Great War (WWI) and the Great Influenza of 1919. Having lost her family and inherited a great fortune, Agnes determines to take a trip to Egypt and the Holy Land. She arrives in Cairo with only her long haired dachshund as company. Very soon after arriving, Agnes meets and falls into the company of T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, and Lady Gertrude Bell. We know these luminaries of history for their roles inventing the modern Middle East.
Ms. Russell sets her novel during this momentous time in history, but the story does not so much focus on the historical facts as they do on the characters themselves. We meet Lawrence, Churchill, and Lady Gertrude Bell in a way that gives insight into the personalities that drove the redrawing of Middle Eastern borders; decisions that continue to affect relationships between people groups and world events to this day.
The character of Agnes is fictional and tells the story of a middle-aged woman coming of age in a very romantic setting. Imagine lush hotels with marble floors and columns, potted palms, and blue tiled pools of water. Further imagine a trip by camel to visit the Great Pyramid and the mysterious Sphinx ... a journey into the desert that includes a full British tea under tents hastily erected by servants who serve the meal on fine bone china and silver. It is in this bigger-than-life setting that Agnes interacts with the aforementioned historical characters. It is also in this setting that she experiences her first love affair and comes to know her own mind and heart as a woman. Agnes' discovery that Karl, her lover, is a German spy adds an element of intrigue to the already full plate of historical, coming of age, and romantic aspects of the novel.
Ms. Russell shows great insight into human nature within the context of her characters and their relationships. One such insight occurs during a painful yet illuminating conversation between Agnes and Karl -- a conversation about her mother and the nature and effects of tyranny. Ms. Russell does not neglect cultural and political commentary in her novel, but I found these a bit jarring as they come from the mouth of a character enmeshed in a "history" still in the making. It seemed a bit of 21st century hindsight was leaking into early 20th century cultural and political insight, but this small "bump" in presentation did not affect my overall enjoyment of the book.
Dreamers of the Day will take you on a leisurely journey through an intriguing place and time in world events using both historical and fictional characters. It is a well written and atmospheric book that I did not want to end.
"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible."
-- T.E. Lawrence from Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Also reviewed by:
Rose City Reader