Cover image for Mad, bad & dangerous to know
Mad, bad & dangerous to know
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Told in alternating narratives that bridge centuries, the latest novel from New York Times bestselling author Samira Ahmed traces the lives of two young women fighting to write their own stories and escape the pressure of cultural expectations in worlds too long defined by men.

It's August in Paris and 17-year-old Khayyam Maquet--American, French, Indian, Muslim--is at a crossroads. This holiday with her parents should be a dream trip for the budding art historian. But her maybe-ex-boyfriend is probably ghosting her, she might have just blown her chance at getting into her dream college, and now all she really wants is to be back home in Chicago figuring out her messy life instead of brooding in the City of Light.

Two hundred years before Khayyam's summer of discontent, Leila is struggling to survive and keep her true love hidden from the Pasha who has "gifted" her with favored status in his harem. In the present day--and with the company of a descendant of Alexandre Dumas--Khayyam begins to connect allusions to an enigmatic 19th-century Muslim woman whose path may have intersected with Alexandre Dumas, Eugène Delacroix, and Lord Byron.

Echoing across centuries, Leila and Khayyam's lives intertwine, and as one woman's long-forgotten life is uncovered, another's is transformed.

Author Notes

Samira Ahmed was born in Bombay, India, and grew up in a small town in Illinois in a house that smelled like fried onions, cardamom, and potpourri. A graduate of the University of Chicago, she's lived in Vermont, Chicago, New York City, and Kauai, where she spent a year searching for the perfect mango. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @sam_aye_ahm.

Reviews 4

School Library Journal Review

Gr 9 Up--Khayyam, a trilingual senior awash with worries about college, is a first-generation American, the daughter of French and Muslim Indian immigrant university professor parents, and spending her annual August in Paris. Set on getting into a prestigious art school, she suffers a setback when a prominent art historian faults her research on a potential undiscovered Eugène Delacroix portrait of a legendary Muslim woman named Leila. Leila, a kind of Helen of Troy, was adulated in the 19th century by Byron and Delacroix, and was mostly known for her ill-fated beloved. Khayyam wants to find Leila's real story, and will find allies who mourn the "centuries of women" who never got to have a voice. Khayyam's tale alternates chapters with Leila's. A primer on French flirting, estate management, impulse control, and Instagram, this art history mystery will be a sure hit with readers who grapple with love triangles, have their eyes on Paris, or are budding feminists. Leila's chapters echo a lush and soulful prose, while Khayyam's follow a sarcastic, neutral banter. This is a whirl through 19th-century hidden drawers, libraries, salons, letters, hashish clubs, mansions, and tales of squandered monies with a descendant of Alexander Dumas and a determined young Muslim woman, on a quest to determine who has the right to #writeherstory. VERDICT Perfect for romantically and historically inclined teens whose ideal first date is an evening out to an art museum.--Sara Lissa Paulson, City-As-School High School, New York City

Publisher's Weekly Review

When 17-year-old Khayyam Maquet (named after Persian poet Omar Khayyam) and university student Alexandre Dumas (named after the French writer, his ancestor), meet by apparent coincidence in Paris one August day, they discover they share a common goal: finding a connection between the 19th-century Dumas and painter Eugène Delacroix. Visiting from Chicago, Khayyam, who is French, Indian, American, and Muslim, wants to jump-start her future as an art historian; Alexandre declares that he wants to preserve his family's legacy. Short, interspersed sections told by 19th-century Leila, the "enslaved harem girl" whom Khayyam believes the original Dumas loved, and who may have inspired both a poem by Byron and a painting by Delacroix, build a suspenseful secondary story line. The book's premise is promising, the Parisian setting enticing, and the dialogue sharply paced. In both scholarship and romance, Khayyam is consistently--if somewhat overtly--cued: she's focused on her professional future, her anger at the way women's stories are elided, and her drive to right that wrong. While the plot development can be hard to follow, punctuated by Khayyam's confusion about a love interest at home and her feelings for Alexandre, Ahmed's (Internment) story succeeds in exploring historical themes of prejudice and who tells whose stories while offering a multi- faceted blend of contemporary and historical intrigue. Ages 14--up. Agent: Joanna Volpe, New Leaf Literary. (Apr.)

Kirkus Review

Khayyam Maquet, a 17-year-old rising high school senior, wallows in self-pity during her family's annual summer trip to Paris.Her failed essay contest entry chasing a theory about a lost Delacroix painting gifted to Alexandre Dumas dashed her hopes of impressing her dream art school. When Khayyam perhaps too coincidentally meets the sixth-great-grandson of Dumas himself, also called Alexandre Dumas, they embark on a quest to find the lost painting of a mysterious raven-haired woman. The narration alternates between Khayyam, a conflicted teen who falls for present-day Alexandre while she is still hung up on her noncommittal boyfriend back home in Chicago, and Leila, the beautiful, mystical Muslim subject of the painting who lived during the 19th century as a concubine to an Ottoman pasha and yearned for freedom and to be with her true love. Ahmed (Internment, 2019, etc.) explores weighty themes including Orientalism, women silenced by history, and the responsibility of sharing their unheard voices as Khayyam grapples with who has the right to tell someone's story. Familiar teen romance and angst, including flip-flopping on feelings and motivations, mix with academic discoveries and intrigue in this fast-paced, if at times dense, mystery. Khayyam is an American Muslim teen with French and Indian parents; the novel explores her biracial and bicultural identities.An entertaining tale that will appeal most to fans of art history and literature. (Fiction. 14-adult) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

On her annual getaway to Paris with her parents, Khayyam is mulling over uncertainties awaiting her back in Chicago: an ex-boyfriend who's sending mixed signals, and a humiliating rejection letter from her dream college, thanks to an essay about an art-world obscurity that has since been debunked. Luckily, a chance encounter with a descendant of Alexandre Dumas and their mystifying connection to the legacy of Leila, a nineteenth-century Muslim woman, might allow Khayyam to redeem herself. Alternating between Khayyam's and Leila's perspectives, Ahmed (Internment, 2019) pulls readers into a picturesque Parisian setting that brings the mellifluous language and customs to life, which makes a perfect backdrop for an art mystery entwining seminal artists and writers, along with the woman linking them all. While Khayyam's narrative sometimes relinquishes the plot to play second fiddle to her romantic vexations, the chapters following Leila's story are alluring and captivating. With a determination to give voice to a woman whose story has been erased from the pages of history, Ahmed offers yet another well-wrought and dynamic novel.--Mahjabeen Syed Copyright 2020 Booklist



Khayyam   I live in between spaces.      The borders between nations, the invisible hyphen between words, the wide chasm between "one of us" and me alone.      French American.      Indian American.      Muslim American.      Biracial. Interfaith. Child of immigrants.      A Parisienne for one month a year: the month when all the other Parisians flee the city.      A girl staring at her phone screen, looking for love but knowing it's not going to show up.      I didn't choose any of this. Which is not to say I wouldn't have, given the opportunity. But it's not like I ever had the option.      I don't even get a say in my diminutives. It's always "Frenchie" or "la petite Américaine."      The people who can't guess what I am think I'm "exotic." Some people say I'm lucky to be an ethnomorph--a person whose brown skin, brown hair, and brown eyes make it seem like I could be from half the countries in the world. But I'm not a passport that everyone gets to stamp with a label of their choosing. Others look at me and try to shove me into their own narrative to define who and what I am. But I'm not a blank page that everyone else gets to write on.      I have my own voice.      I have my own story.      I have my own name. It's Khayyam.       Khayyam   I just stepped in dog shit. Bienvenue à Paris.      Welcome to my life of constant code-switching. Witness my attempts to blend an occasional impulse for Bollywood melodramatics with my flair for complaining like a local. I shouldn't be cranky, summering in Paris. I should be an expert at dodging excrement on sidewalks and accustomed to tepid service from waiters and sardonic smiles at my fluent but slightly accented French. And I should absolutely be prepared for les grèves--the strikes that bring the Métro to a standstill every single time we're here.      I should be French about it and nonchalant.      Instead, I'm American and have no chill.      Because it is hot. The air-conditioning is mostly aspirational. And I'm a captive here, since my parents value family vacation tradition more than my desire to stay in Chicago, stewing in self-doubt and woe-is-me pity and the truth universally acknowledged that the forces of entropy attack you on all fronts.      This is what metaphorical multiple organ failure feels like:      My head : I have likely, most probably, almost definitely royally screwed up my chances of getting into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago--my dream college that I've been shooting for since ninth grade. It is the school if you want to go into art history. Which I do. Obsessively.      My heart : Belongs to Zaid. Still . Zaid, my not-exactly boyfriend, but only because he never actually called himself my boyfriend, who is thousands of miles away in Chicago.      My lungs : On top of the dog crap, there's a railway strike today, somehow precisely coinciding with this heat wave and my arrival in Paris. The air is humid and so thick I'm panting.      But those are merely symptoms.      The underlying cause? An essay. Yeah, really.      The School of the Art Institute is super competitive, so I wanted to find a way to stand out from the pack. I had this brilliant idea to submit an absolutely mind-blowing essay for its Young Scholar Prize. Technically, I was ineligible because you have to be a high school grad to enter. I was only a junior, and I petitioned the judges to make an exception. I didn't want a technicality standing in the way of my dreams. Besides, my college counselor told me it would show I have "moxie" and would look great on my college applications. I was certain I had solved a centuries-old art world mystery, proving that Eugène Delacroix had secretly given a painting--one of several--from his Giaour series to the writer Alexandre Dumas, the all for one, one for all dude. Not just any painting in the series-- the exact one on display at the Art Institute. I was going to astound the old fogey museum curators with my genius. I would unveil a secret that was hiding in plain sight. I would be the youngest prizewinner ever, an art world darling. I based my entire theory on a single sentence in a twenty-year-old article about Delacroix I found online and followed down a rabbit hole. Apparently fake news is also old news.      The thing with confidence, though, is that when you're proven wrong--and holy hell, was I proven wrong--you wither away into the smallest version of yourself. And head judge--now my lifelong nemesis--Celenia Mondego made sure of that. In her words, I had written, "an earnest if ill-conceived attempt at unraveling a mystery of provenance that fell far short of its ambitions due to slipshod research--a catastrophic inability to grasp obvious facts. The work of a dilettante, not a future art historian."      The words still stab.      Maybe I could deal with it better if I didn't feel so alone, but my person, my I'll-always-be-there-for-you pseudo boyfriend, graduated from Lab High in June and is apparently so busy getting ready to leave for college that he can't even pick up the phone--his second favorite appendage. Meanwhile, I'm pleading with myself not to text him again . Clinging like a lifeline to the one text he did send while I was mid-flight: I'll see you when I see you. p.s. I got Ice Capades . Quoting our thing, our ridiculous thing, an inside joke from our cheesy retro first date movie. I melted. Ugh.      I keep letting myself forget that it's at least partly his fault I screwed up my prize essay. Somewhat. Probably. Indirectly. It seemed like every time I was in the library researching or trying to write, he'd sneak up behind me in the stacks and kiss me on the neck. His kisses are highly distracting.      Basically, I'm seventeen and already washed up. What do I do now?      Mom would tell me to go easier on myself and to trust my own voice to find a way out.      Papa would remind me that I'm young and in Paris, a city with pastries on every corner, and that life is still beautiful: C'est la belle vie, chérie.      Zaid, if he were acknowledging my existence and wasn't part of my problem, would probably tell me to forget about everything and suggest creative ways in which he might be able to help me with that.      And Julie, my best friend, who is currently inaccessible because she's on a Dark-Ages, technology-free family holiday at a cabin in Door County, would tell me to figure out where I want to go and do whatever it takes to get there. Easy for her to say--she's both an unstoppable force and an immovable object.      Here's the thing: I actually know where I want to go. But too many things I can't control keep getting in my way.      Sometimes literally.      With les grèves there's no Métro, and every electric scooter and bike share is taken. Normally I wouldn't mind a long, leisurely walk along the quais of the Seine River on the way to the Petit Palais--that's kind of the point of being in Paris. But I'm reminded that this is why there are no songs about August in Paris, when it's all tourists and la vie en sweat instead of the Hollywood version of Paris where it's perpetual spring, when young love and chestnut trees are always in bloom.      If I believed in fate, I'd say the universe was conspiring against me.     The courtyard café of the Petit Palais has always been my reliable refuge. I plan on photographing every inch of its meandering path, fragrant plants, blue-and-gold tiled fountains, and, of course, the perfectly pillowy macarons I'll be inhaling at a small wrought-iron table amongst the blossoms. Luckily, the place is made for Instagram, which is good because I need new content to replace all the dusty old books and archival material I posted in my "ill-conceived" attempt to impress the ultimate we are not amused , judgiest of judges Celenia Mondego.      Maybe meticulously cataloguing my trip will help me forget my "catastrophic inability" to do anything right.      And maybe, perhaps, Zaid will see my posts and remember I exist.      First, though, I need to scrape the remaining dog crap from my red All-Stars.      I skulk into the shadows of the sculptures of naked women flanking the alabaster staircase that leads to the doors of the Petit Palais. As soon as I bend down to inspect my left sole, I hear someone behind me attempting to stifle a laugh.      Do not look, Khayyam. Keep your head down.      "Welcome to Paris!" a honeyed French accent declares in English.      I roll my eyes. I almost decide to bite back in French, but this arrogant jerk already chose my preferred language for sparring. "How do you know I'm not from Paris?" I ask with my back still turned to him.      "I'm s-sorry," the Frenchman stammers.      I stand and whirl around, ready to go for the jugular, but see that this particular jugular leads to an extremely cute face. Excerpted from Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.