Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer


Before she became the nineteenth century’s greatest heroine, before he had written a word of Madame Bovary, Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert traveled down the Nile at the same time. In the imaginative leap taken by award-winning writer Enid Shomer’s The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, the two ignite a passionate friendship marked by intelligence, humor, and a ravishing tenderness that will alter both their destinies.

In 1850, Florence, daughter of a prominent English family, sets sail on the Nile chaperoned by longtime family friends and her maid, Trout. To her family’s chagrin—and in spite of her wealth, charm, and beauty—she is, at twenty-nine and of her own volition, well on her way to spinsterhood. Meanwhile, Gustave and his good friend Maxime Du Camp embark on an expedition to document the then largely unexplored monuments of ancient Egypt. Traumatized by the deaths of his father and sister, and plagued by mysterious seizures, Flaubert has dropped out of law school and writ-ten his first novel, an effort promptly deemed unpublishable by his closest friends. At twenty-eight, he is an unproven writer with a failing body.

Florence is a woman with radical ideas about society and God, naive in the ways of men. Gustave is a notorious womanizer and patron of innumerable prostitutes. But both burn with unfulfilled ambition, and in the deft hands of Shomer, whose writing The New York Times Book Review has praised as “beautifully cadenced, and surprising in its imaginative reach,” the unlikely soul mates come together to share their darkest torments and most fervent hopes. Brimming with adventure and the sparkling sensibilities of the two travelers, this mesmerizing novel offers a luminous combination of gorgeous prose and wild imagination, all of it colored by the opulent tapestry of mid-nineteenth-century Egypt.

Ancient Egypt is the backdrop for this imaginative novel about two famous people, Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, who accidently meet and form a bond while travelling through this ancient country.

The first thing that draws the reader are the lush, beautifully written descriptions of the majestic city of Egypt with the flowing Nile river, its ancient tombs, hidden artefacts, and spectacular views. The author describes the characters’ surroundings with such vividness, that it is easy to picture all the sights and feels as if one can place themselves in the actual locations.

The characters contrast each other, providing interest as the story unfolds. First there is the virtuous Florence Nightingale, a woman with a keen interest in learning, reading, who is eager to escape the restrictions of her family and society. Flaubert is depicted as a lustful, regularly immoral womanizer, Gustave Flaubert. 

The novel drills deep into each character’s thoughts, their past histories, their feelings in a rich examination of the human spirit and human individuality. There is humor, sadness, and the mystery of ancient Egypt’s artefacts, weaved into each page. This book is recommended for readers who prefer beautiful prose and rich detail, rather than those who are looking for a quick, spirited read. It is very much about a few moments in time where two very different people find friendship and something in common, but which never altered their lives.

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