The Twelve Rooms of the Nile and imagine what might have happened had the two met and formed an unlikely friendship.
That leap of faith is lovingly, deeply imagined through chapters alternating between the perspective of Nightingale and Flaubert. Egypt comes alive in luscious detail seen through both the virginal perspective of Nightingale, who feels constrained by her family's suffocating insistence on propriety but longs to come alive, and the licentious view of the bored Frenchmen Flaubert. They meet and it's a testament to Shomer's strength as a writer that we believe these two very different people would be interested in ever speaking to each other beyond a casual acquaintance.
Some readers may find the moment by moment examination of both lead characters' consciousness and experiences too much but I adored this element of the novel. It's rare to find historical fiction that goes so deeply into the consciousness of the past and makes you understand what it felt like to be a young man or a young woman in the middle of the 19th century, seeing the wonders of Egypt before they had been fully exploited.
If you can come to Nile with these expectations, you will not be disappointed. But if you are expecting a novel that builds beyond the basics of two people on a trip talking again and again about their lives, you may want to look elsewhere. After building two believable characters, fully inhabiting their worlds and making their relationship believable, Shomer doesn't seem entirely sure of where to go next. I respected her decision not to take Nightingale and Flaubert's relationship into too-predictable territory but ultimately it all added up to very little.
When the two finally part, I sensed that Flaubert was not affected all that much and that Nightingale - other than recovering from an infatuation - was already on her set path. Perhaps the amateurish handling of a subplot with Nightingale's maid - complete with the requisite abduction by Egyptian brigands - distracted me from her more sensitive points. Readers should also be aware that in her effort to emphasize the differences between Nightingale and her "sacred" calling with Flaubert and his attraction to the "profane," Shomer is quite graphic in her descriptions of the Cairo brothels.
Those interested in beautiful writing and breathtaking descriptions of Egypt will find much to like here. Moreover, it's rare to read a book about people who are just about to make a crucial change in their lives. Most novels examine the actual turning point and I appreciated that difference in perspective. But ultimately, I found myself disappointed and asking how it all added up.