Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

I have so little time to read all the books and articles I would love to read, that the real measure of my enjoyment of a particular book is whether I finish it or not. After about thirty pages of Dreamers of the Day, I knew without a doubt that I cared what happened to the protagonist, Agnes Shanklin, and I wanted to see her intrepid self through to the very end of the novel.

Agnes survives the influenza epidemic of 1918 as the rest of her family succumbs. She inherits a small fortune and after a few years of settling her family's affairs decides to travel to Egypt and the Holy Land. Once abroad, she meets up with TE Lawrence and Gertrude Bell and begins to touch the story of the building of the modern middle east. Agnes’s role in the affair is minimal, but she is eyewitness to the great deeds and events which set the course for the rest of us and our current state of affairs with the middle east.

Dreamers of the Day is part love story, part coming of age story, part history and part modern morality tale for those of us trying to make sense of the current war that rages on. I found the tale most engrossing when it told of Agnes’s exploits and her own self-realization. It slowed a bit when the characters turned didactic. When Lawrence and Churchill and cronies took turns spelling out the history and politics of the region my interest flagged.

The hardest part to make sense of was, in fact, the ending. As happy as I was to see that Agnes turned out okay, I did not love that at the end she was narrating from beyond the grave: a device that was apparently used to be able to tie together the Cairo conference with the current battles and politics of the region all by the same first person narrator. I finally did get why the author chose to use this rather clunky narrative form, and after I was used to it I enjoyed it. Russell should have ended the story after Agnes left Cairo and returned to Ohio and added a brief epilogue.

All in all, I did very much enjoy Dreamers of the Day. I became intrigued by TE Lawrence and Gertrude Bell and the history of Iraq which is so much in the news all the time. I loved Agnes who can be classified as a woman ahead of her time. I loved that Agnes spent her early years in Cleveland, the city near where I grew up. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction, a good romance or simply a rare 1920’s woman’s coming of age story. Now, I want to go rent Lawrence of Arabia.

1 comment:

Steph said...

I should read this - the struggles of the middle east seem so complex. Am enjoying Three Cups of Tea! thank you!