Review: Byronic Heroines, Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, by Samira Ahmed

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed Penguin Random House

Reviewed by C.E. Archer-Helke

I don’t often find a book that simultaneously transports me to the best parts of my childhood while taking me on an anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, intersectional feminist wish fulfillment fest, but Samira Ahmed’s Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know manages just that—all wrapped up in a young adult dual-narrative novel.

Ahmed’s heroines are contemporary Hyde Park teenager Khayyam, whose academic parents are embarrassingly in love and who is on a quest to uncover obscured women’s voices, and 19th-century Leila, who seeks to have a voice and a life of her own. Khayyam is a terrific young adult heroine: smart, savvy, and a great vehicle for the wish-fulfillment of her readers. She’s also a nostalgia trip for someone who grew up in Hyde Park as an infinitely less-cool version of her.

Khayyam starts the book by reminding us she has her own name and identity, even if that name and identity is often stripped from her by people who pigeonhole her into one space, identity, nationality, or other role. The daughter of a French father and an Indian-American mother; a Muslim in an Islamophobic world; an intellectual at an age when it isn’t always cool to interpret gender and history through paintings: Khayyam’s real from her first moments on the page. I definitely knew kids like her when I was a Hyde Park kid.

Leila, who joins us later in the novel, is based on Eugène Delacroix paintings and a poem by Lord Byron. Byron figures into her narrative, though, in this case, the troublemaking romantic poet is just a vehicle for a determined young woman’s plotting. The poetry and the art that inspired Leila are both orientalist and sexist, building storylines around a powerless woman. Ahmed takes those ugly historical tropes and shreds them, letting Leila explode off the page with energy and agency, determining, as much as she can, her own fate in a world of men.

There are, at a minimum, two ways to read Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know. The first is as an escapist young adult romance, with a smart teenage girl, a sort-of ex who ghosted her, a hot French teenager from the Dumas family, parents safely tucked in a Paris apartment, plenty of social media, and Paris in August. Then there’s the other, as a hard-hitting work of intersectional feminism and anti-oppression and post-colonialism and history blended with art, wrapped up in the story of one incredible August in Paris.

Khayyam’s parents remind her not to let some guy steal her intellectual property, a thread running throughout the book. She must be the master of her own destiny, needs to publish her findings first, and has to watch her back. The hot French guy—who happens to be descended from Alexandre Dumas—has secrets of his own, and there are academic (and other) shenanigans aplenty. Leila, meanwhile, bursts onto the page, emerging even in the present day through the letters and the paintings Khayyam and Alexandre find in marvelous old documents, and buildings on their quest through Paris.

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know tackles heavy subjects, turning an intersectionally feminist, anti-oppression lens on everything from white supremacist hegemonies and whitewashed histories to the existential horror of being a somewhat nerdy teenager. Ahmed does so with panache, offering characters who leap from the page—people who, like Khayyam and Alexandre, could be the kid next door. Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know is an exuberant summer read with much to offer and discover.

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know is available at local bookstores and through the publisher's website.   Caitlin Archer-Helke is South-Side-born and raised, hailing from a now-vanished corner of Hyde Park. By day she's an academic librarian; by night she's an obsessive reader and researcher, exploring strange historical byways and digging into architectural scandals. She blogs about books, opera, and odd histories at, and tweets about Chicago, libraries, and books @ce_archerhelke.
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