The Twelve Rooms of the Nile

Written by Enid Shomer
Review by Mary F. Burns

Who could have imagined that Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert would be so good together? Apparently, Enid Shomer did just that, and her debut novel is thoroughly engaging, witty, philosophical, sensual and intellectual. From the bare coincidence that both Nightingale and Flaubert spent a summer sailing up and down the Nile in 1850—but on separate boats, with no indication that they ever met at any point—Shomer has written an epic but personal tale of the meeting of two exquisitely intelligent people (much too smart for their own comfort, or those of their families as well).

Florence is desperately searching for a way out of her upper-middle-class prison, having disappointed her severe mother by refusing to marry; she feels a call to something higher but she’s not sure what it is. Gustave struggles with the memory of past mistresses, a domineering but beloved mother, and his own desperate need to do nothing in life but write; and yet he falters, believing he has no talent and nothing to say. In the mostly “uncivilized” lands along the Nile, the two meet again and again as their parties track each other to sites of ancient ruins and across the desert. The effect of living unconventionally both releases their spirits and pulls them into a vortex of sensual discovery that opens the eyes of both these exceptional persons to a new understanding of their own experiences as well as empathy for another. This is a book to be savored and read with a calm spirit of openness and acceptance of the new and the strange.