A captivating debut that imagines a passionate friendship between Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, when they were young and exploring the Nile in 1850.
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.
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Enid Shomer won the Iowa Fiction Prize for her first collection of stories and the Florida Gold Medal for her second. She is also the author of four books of poetry. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and many other publications. She lives in Tampa, Florida.Review:
"A mesmerizing new work of historical fiction...The Twelve Rooms of the Nile...ribald and sometimes explicitly sexual, is a fascinating travel back in time" (The Miami Herald)
"Let’s talk about the imagery first. Let’s choose one word: magnificent. This is the Nile; this is Egypt; this is desert sun and camel rhythms, Harem seduction and ‘spavined mules.’ This is what Shomer does best.” (Beth Kephart The Chicago Tribune)
“Shomer’s exquisite debut is an intellectual adventure through mid-nineteenth-century Egypt as experienced by two dissimilar people sitting on the cusp of greatness, though neither one knows that. Prim, earnest Florence Nightingale yearns to do good works, but her sex and disapproving family constrain her exuberant curiosity. Gustave Flaubert, a devoted cynic, loses himself in debauchery while seeking literary inspiration . . . a captivating story about close friendship and all the pleasures and complications of understanding another human being. The superb characterizations, poignant observations on the Egyptian religion, and depictions of the land’s ethereal beauty—all perfectly interwoven—are rendered in memorable language that excites and enriches the mind.” (Sarah Johnson Booklist (starred review))
“The meeting in 1850 of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert in Egypt, an unlikely but immensely satisfying confluence, is deftly imagined in this brilliant book. The louche Flaubert and the sober Miss Nightingale are fitting representations of ourselves as life’s travelers—alternately lazy and alert, sensuous and restrained, complacent and curious.” (Susanna Moore author of The Big Girls)
“I could not imagine it: Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale as friends, almost as lovers! Step by step, detail by detail, Shomer constructs the story of how a man and a woman with nothing in common but genius, one French, one English, one steeped in cynicism, one drowning in despair, could meet on the Nile in 1850, talk, write, hold hands, and see into each other’s souls. As brilliantly sensual as it is finely psychological, this novel is a tour de force of twenty-first century storytelling.” (Gillian Gill author of Nightingales)
“With the voice of a poet and a keen eye for time, place, and character, Enid Shomer tells of the imagined intersection of two famous lives—and the communion of two unlikely souls—on the crossroads of the Nile. Beautifully written, touchingly rendered.” (Alan Brennert author of Moloka'i)
“Once in a blue moon I read a novel and want to weep with envy that it is not my name on the cover. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile is such a book. This clever, funny story of Florence Nightingale—English, earnest to a fault, virginal—and Gustave Flaubert—hedonist, sexual gourmet, and cynic—is brilliant. Every sentence, every paragraph shimmers with the color and heat of the Nile and the intelligence of the characters.” (Roberta Rich author of The Midwife of Venice)
"With its beauty and wit, its bawdiness, its specificity of characterization, its historical rigor, and its cinematic evocation of time and place, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile is an astoundingly good first novel. In fact, forget ‘first.’” (Daniel Menaker author of A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation)
“Enid Shomer’s ingenious first novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, is a richly imagined meeting of the minds of two brilliant, iconic figures . . . skillfully depicted here as unformed youth, a pair of lost souls on the cusp of greatness. This is a poignant story of two very different people who find that true illumination often comes in the form of the unlikeliest of human relationships.” (Amy Hill Hearth New York Times bestselling author and winner of the George Foster Peabody Award)
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