Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell. Published 2008 by Random House. Literary Fiction.
I first heard of Mary Doria Russell as a fantasy writer- my husband, a serious science fiction/fantasy buff, has several of her books in his to-be-read pile- so I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up Dreamers of the Day. The book is a fictionalized account of the 1919 Cairo Conference, where Lawrence of Arabia and Winston Churchill joined with other Western leaders to divvy up the Middle East, told from the point of view of a fictional onlooker, a middle-aged woman on the trip of a lifetime.
The title refers to those influential personages who have the dreams that change the world, and it's not exactly a compliment. Russell's point about the Cairo Conference is that major, history-altering decisions were made for millions of people by outsiders who didn't really have to deal with the consequences, and that the problems we face today are the misbegotten children of those decisions. Meddling in history, it seems, is a dangerous business indeed.
The narrator, Agnes Shanklin, a maiden Ohio schoolteacher, has lived her life serving others, especially her angry mother. She has never married, and only fell in love once, to a man who dropped her for her beautiful, gifted sister Lillian. Following the influenza epidemic of the early 20th century, Agnes is left alone but wealthy, and decides to take a trip to Egypt and the Middle East, in part to see where her sister lived as a missionary. Luckily for Agnes, her sister was close to T.E. Lawrence, and Agnes is welcomed into his circle and given ringside seats for some of the most exciting political negotiations of her time. She also attracts the attention of a charming, accommodating spy named Karl. In the Middle East, Agnes experiences independence and a sense of importance for the first time, and it changes her life.
I enjoyed the book quite a bit. Russell's writing is engaging and well-paced, and Agnes was an appealing, likable character despite being a little bit of a doormat when it came to her family. I think this tendency of hers is forgivable and understandable given the time and place she lived and the limited opportunities available to women. Once she has the means she relishes her independence and the large section of the book devoted to her time in the Middle East is fun, lively reading. Russell rushes through the rest of Agnes's life but it's interesting to watch her fortunes rise and fall with the waves of American history. The preaching Agnes does at the end dragged it down a little for me, but overall I thought Dreamers of Day was a lively read that would appeal to people who enjoy historical fiction with a dash of romance and a mid-life coming of age. And I might just take a second look at those other books of Russell's that my husband has been hoarding.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.