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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.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-06-04
- Reviewer: Staff
In her debut novel, poet/storywriter Shomer (Tourist Season) imagines Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale meeting in Egypt, among the crowds cruising the Nile. This is 1850, before Madame Bovary was written or Nightingale famously tended to the wounded in the Crimean War. Shomer portrays the Frenchman and the Englishwoman as seemingly having little in common: he frequents brothels, makes squeezes (tracings) of monuments, and copes with the failure of his early fiction by writing pornography. She travels with chaperones, reads hieroglyphics, and sleeps under a newfangled contraption to keep mosquitoes at bay. Sharing itineraries, the two discover they both possess unquenchable ambition, and they both suffer from depression over the gap between dreams and reality. Mutual respect begets attraction, and soon Nightingale is teaching Flaubert how women think, while Flaubert teaches Nightingale how men feel. Poetically evoked, Egypt proves as multidimensional and conflicted as the main characters, while Nightingale’s maid provides humor and pathos. Narrative drama is not Shomer’s forte, but she makes up for the meandering pace with rich landscapes, probing character studies, and well described insights into inspiration and genius. Agent: Rob McQuilkin, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. (Aug.)
The treasures of Egypt
Before she became a heroine of the Crimean War, and before he had written a word of Madame Bovary, Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert each traveled to Egypt—and, reportedly, glimpsed each other on the Nile. Though the historical record suggests that they did not actually meet, in poet Enid Shomer’s rich and imaginative novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, they do, igniting a passionate friendship that both inspired and repelled.
Though the enfant terrible of French letters and the Lady of the Lamp might not seem to have many similarities, in 1849 both were searching for a larger purpose to their lives. Nightingale had just turned down a marriage proposal and Flaubert had just dropped out of law school and was mourning the death of his sister. He had also written his first novel, deemed unpublishable by a group of close friends. Both suffered from maladies; Flaubert had recurring seizures, which were probably epilepsy, and Nightingale endured debilitating depression. A trip down the Nile was an opportunity to refresh their minds and stimulate their senses. Most importantly it was a chance to leave their families behind.
In The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, so called after the many rooms the sun god Ra was said to pass through on his sacred journey from sunset to sunrise, Flaubert and Nightingale are both traveling the river with arranged stops at archaeological sites such as Philae and Abu Simbel. Flaubert was traveling with his friend Max Du Camp, an amateur photographer and archaeologist; Nightingale was with family friends and a lady’s maid, Trout. Shomer suggests that the strange surroundings provided opportunities for Flaubert and Nightingale to confide their deepest wishes and fears to one another, and the intensity of the environment, with its extreme temperatures and strange fauna, encouraged their closeness.
The striking Egyptian ruins serve as a perfect backdrop for the intensity of the characters and the plot gets a comic, though not wholly successful, twist in an apparent desert kidnapping. But the novel shines brightly as a thoughtful study of these two singular geniuses, a story Shomer tells with a deep understanding of the poignancy of human connection.