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Khayyam is grateful to have the summer in her father’s native Paris to get her life together. Her senior year is about to start. Her never-quite-official boyfriend is off to college and popping up in Instagram pics with other girls. And worst of all, Khayyam has ruined all of her chances of becoming an art historian with one ill-conceived, under-researched essay erroneously linking Alexandre Dumas and Eugene Delacroix.
“The work of a dilettante, not a future art historian.” That was how the head judge at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago had described her work. Khayyam had hoped that participating in the essay contest would set her apart–show the Art Institute how serious she was–so that the School would take a closer look at her college application. Now, she wonders if she’s distinguished herself in a bad way and is destined for still more rejection.
But when she meets a descendent of Alexandre Dumas (another, younger, perfectly charmant Alexandre Dumas) by chance at a cafe, Khayyam sees new possibilities opening up for her. Maybe she and Alexandre can work together to unravel the truth behind Dumas’ connection with Delacroix and salvage Khayyam’s reputation as a future art historian. And maybe in the process, they can discover the identity and history Leila–a woman of Asian and Muslim descent (like Khayyam)–who was described by the poet Byron, painted by the artist Delacroix, but never given a voice of her own.
With the hashtag #writeherstory, Ahmed attacks the narratives that men build around women (particularly women of color and intersections of marginalized identities)–narratives that subsume women’s own voices and cast them as sexual objects in dramas directed by the men around them. She mounts her assault poetically with the interweaving of Khayyam’s voice with the voice of Leila, fictional in reality but real in the world of the narrative. Khayyam’s conflicts and power struggles with the men in her life parallel on a less grand scale the experiences of Leila in her interactions with the male-dominated artistic community–many well-intentioned men, none quite listening to Khayyam or to Leila. I loved every page of this book and highly recommend it to older YA readers who like deep, thought-provoking (thought-requiring) realistic fiction, especially readers with an interest in art history and/or classic literature.