I had read earlier novels by author Mary Doria Russell, and had enjoyed them a great deal, so it was pretty much a given that I would pick up a copy of her 2008 release, Dreamers of the Day. What I had not expected was how much I was going to be enjoying this one, or how vividly the story and themes were going to touch me.
Told in first person narrative, the story of Agnes Shanklin, a very ordinary teacher from Ohio in 1920, is quite unexpected. All of her life, Agnes has depreciated herself, the unlovely daughter where one sister is gorgeous and smart, and her brother, expected heir to the family business, turns away from running the company. Constantly belittled by her mother, Agnes turns to teaching to find some sort of connection to life, nearing fourty years when the Great Influenza hits after World War I comes to an omnious close. But in a very unlikely tragedy, she looses everyone that she knows, when her relatives are struck down by influenza, and she finds herself the recipient of an inheritance.
It's not a vast inheritance, but it is enough for Agnes to spread her wings a bit, and discover her true self underneath. And despite the omnious warning of her mother's voice in her head, Agnes indulges herself in a new wardrobe, gets her hair bobbed and sets out to explore Egypt in the company of her daschund, Rosie. For her beloved sister, Lillie, married to a missionary and living in the midEast, had sent Agnes letters about her life, and in an attempt to free herself from her ghosts, Agnes decides to see what Lillie had.
Once she arrives in Cairo, Agnes finds herself in the circle of luminaries who have gathered there to decide what is to happen in the mideast and unknowingly lay down the roots of the modern conflicts that have plagued the future. There's Gertrude Bell, Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine and an adventurer named T.E. Lawrence. On a more personal note, Agnes finds herself drawn to a German named Karl Weilbacher, who may or may not be a spy...
Part travelogue, part reverie, this is a glorious novel to read. I found myself drawn helplessly in by Agnes' character, and watching as she blossoms into a lively person, full of curiosity and eventual compassion, I was enchanted. Just as enthralling are the descriptions of Alexandria, Cairo and Jerusalem, all of which stirred powerful memories of a recent trip to those cities. It is wonderful when an author does such vivid narrative that I felt myself back there, and my own experiences are renewed.
The historical aspect is just as well done as the setting. I really enjoyed how the author wove together fact and fiction here, and yes, some of the more remarkable incidents did happen. Her portrayal of T.E. Lawrence, the man better known as Lawrence of Arabia, is very different than the Hollywood legend that David Lean's film created. I don't want to reveal much more of this book, as so not to ruin anything for someone who has not read this, but it is a story that will pull you in and make you think.
For me, one of the best parts of the story is Rosie, Agnes' pet longhaired daschund, who is an integral part of the story, and a delight. For anyone who has owned a pet, whether feline or canine, you wil certainly recognize many parts of this and find yourself quietly chuckling over Rosie. I confess, I am a sucker for daschunds, finding in them a remarkable attitude in a body that is less suited for survival -- and winning in spite of it.
Finally, there is Agnes herself, who is such a refreshingly ordinary person that I could immediately connect with her. For anyone who has grown up with a distant parent or siblings that were 'better,' this novel does have some heartrending moments, as it is all too easy to see yourself in Agnes' situation. She also has faults to her nature, which helps to make her all the more human, and the way that her nature unfolds and grows is one of the best parts of the book.
This is a novel that I can recommend to anyone who has ached to explore the unknown, or sighed over the tales of faraway lands. This story inspires and fires up that longing and it is one that I can happily recommend. Along with the story itself, there is an author's afterword that has quite a few surprises, and please, do resist the urge to peek -- all of your questions will be rewarded.
Five stars overall, and a novel that I consider to be one of the best to come out of 2008.
Other novels by Mary Doria Russell:
The Children of God
A Thread of Grace
Dreamers of the Day
Mary Doria Russell
2008; Random House Books
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