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The Twelve Rooms of the Nile

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Overview

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, ...

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The Twelve Rooms of the Nile

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

Booklist (starred review)

“Shomer’s exquisite debut is an intellectual adventure. . . . The superb characterizations, poignant observation 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
Shomer’s exquisite debut is an intellectual adventure. . . . The superb characterizations, poignant observation 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
USA Today
“Poetic . . . Enid Shomer's debut novel begins where historical documentation leaves off, imagining a strong friendship between the lost, pre-Madame Bovary Flaubert and the earnest 29-year-old Nightingale searching for a purpose.”
The Best Historical Fiction of 2012 NPR
“Tender and marvelously imagined.”
The Chicago Tribune
“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.”
Publishers Weekly
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.)
Booklist - Sarah Johnson
“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.”
author of The Big Girls - Susanna Moore
“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.”
author of Nightingales - Gillian Gill
“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.”
author of Moloka'i - Alan Brennert
“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.”
The Miami Herald
"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"
From the Publisher
“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.”

"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"

“Shomer’s exquisite debut is an intellectual adventure. . . . The superb characterizations, poignant observation 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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“Poetic . . . Enid Shomer's debut novel begins where historical documentation leaves off, imagining a strong friendship between the lost, pre-Madame Bovary Flaubert and the earnest 29-year-old Nightingale searching for a purpose.”

“Tender and marvelously imagined.”

The Chicago Tribune - Beth Kephart
"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.”
author of The Midwife of Venice - Roberta Rich
“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.”
author of A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation - Daniel Menaker
"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.’”
New York Times bestselling author and winner of the George Foster Peabody Award - Amy Hill Hearth
“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.”
Library Journal
Both Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert sought escape and direction as they traveled in Egypt in 1849–50. Having rejected a marriage proposal, Nightingale longed for purpose in life beyond the limited roles acceptable to her wealthy family. Reeling from his first novel's failure, Flaubert joined his friend Max's study of monuments but devoted more energy to sexual escapades. Although nothing indicates Nightingale and Flaubert met, poet and short story writer Shomer (Tourist Season) bases her debut novel on that possibility. In letters and conversations, they share their estrangement from others and longings for accomplishment. Flaubert explains sources of sexual pleasure to the naive Nightingale. Her quest for independence enlightens him about how societal conventions can stifle women's spirits. A desert trek to the Red Sea turns into a fight for survival after Nightingale's maid, Trout, is kidnapped, other travelers succumb to fever, and water supplies disappear. Despite a growing intimacy between the two before their rescue, Flaubert breaks his promise to meet her in Cairo, in part because he fears he has syphilis. Journeying home, Nightingale wipes Egypt from her memory as she visits European hospitals and discovers purpose and resolve at last. VERDICT Despite the intriguing premise, the novel bogs down in subplots such as relationships between Nightingale and Trout or Flaubert and Max. Readers interested in Egyptology or 19th-century travels will appreciate descriptions of ancient sites. For others, the trip may be more plodding than engaging.—Kathy Piehl, Minnesota State Univ. Lib. Mankato
Kirkus Reviews
Alternative literary history--the conceit here is that Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, both of whom traveled to Egypt in 1850, met on the voyage and developed an ardent friendship. In 1850, Flaubert had not yet written Madame Bovary and Florence Nightingale was still looking for an outlet for a personality that identified with the suffering of the world and had yet found no proper channel for her empathy. Flaubert is traveling with Maxime du Camp, and both are worldly men, having frequented whorehouses over several continents. In fact, Flaubert is currently enamored with Kuchuk Hanem, whose sultry beauty he recalls with lascivious fondness--and this while having temporarily left his mistress, Louise Colet, back in France. In contrast, Nightingale is traveling with Charles and Selina Bracebridge, friends who also serve as chaperones, and she is trying to escape both a family that tries to rein in her assertive personality and a broken engagement to Richard Monckton Milnes, the English man of letters. Although Flaubert's English is spotty, the language barrier is more than made up for by Nightingale's excellent French. He begins addressing her as "My dear Rossignol [Nightingale]," and their conversation becomes increasingly intimate, as does their physical contact, the sensual novelist helping to loosen up the strait-laced Nightingale. Although they never consummate their relationship, the sexual energy increases dramatically when they take a caravan trip across the desert. By the end of the novel, Flaubert and Nightingale split up wistfully, neither overly nostalgic for what might have been. By weaving her own imaginative constructions in with actual journal entries of both Flaubert and Nightingale, Shomer skillfully combines historical plausibility and historical truth.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451642971
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 8/20/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 491,591
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2012

    Well-written insight into the still-forming mindsets of two historic figures.

    Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightengale journey through Egypt in 1850 -- did they actually ever meet, probably not. The book is an engaging and indepth look into the early lives of these two soon-to-be famous individuals based on a chance meeting between the two that results in a developing friendship which affects the future known lives of each . Both carry monumental "baggage," but through their intertwined lives and blooming "friendship" and ultimate loss both find a foundation to develop into the influential people they beome.

    The depth of the background information and the weaving of the information into the characters' motivations, desires, beliefs and goals was outstanding. The reader feels empathy and understanding for every episode in the earlier lives of the characters. Ultimately, you feel you have read their diaries and truly understand them, the people they are at the time, and the people we know they become.

    FYI, Flaubert was quite the whore-frequenter and full information on his habits is included, but not beyond that which sets up the relationship between him and Florence.

    The Egyptian trip that is the background story is also largely accurate. Photographer Max DuCamp is Flaubert's companion and the images of Egyptian temples, especially Abu Simbel, as they existed in 1850 is historic and literally an Egyptologist's dream experience. The descriptions of Egyptian life and historical sites and the "adventures" of the characters are great insight to life in Egypt at the time.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 2, 2012

    Extraordinary debut novel with gorgeous writing

    I was swept away by this tale of the fictional meeting of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert as they traveled through Egypt in 1850. He was the libertine who would go on to write Madame Bovary, and she was the virginal spinster who would later become famous as the woman who revolutionized nursing in the Crimean War. Shomer imagines that their paths crossed (apparently they really WERE in Egypt at the same time) and that these lonely geniuses were drawn together in a way that changed both of them and helped them develop into the historical figures we know today. The book is funny, sexy, and has beautiful imagery that really pulls you in to the Egypt of 1850, at a time when few Europeans dared travel there. Highly recommended!!!!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 13, 2012

    This book isn't just for the reader of historical fiction, it is

    This book isn't just for the reader of historical fiction, it is for anyone who loves good writing and beautiful places. The setting is great and imagined in great detail. Shomer did her homework. But the best part is the differneces s and the tension betweent the two main characters, Flaubert and Nightingale. They are so different from each other and so natural together in this imagined meeting. I was fasinated when they were together. A very good portrayal of where the relations between men and women were at that time (Mid 1800s). This is a good read. Thoughtful, intelligent and, at times funny and bawdy. Highly recommended!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 25, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Ancient Egypt is the backdrop for this imaginative novel about t

    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.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2012

    Time Travel (Or the next best thing): The Twelve Rooms of the Ni

    Time Travel (Or the next best thing): The Twelve Rooms of the Nile
    Enid Shomer is a Poet who wrote her first Novel. I begin this way to convey how perfectly and eloquently each line in this beautiful book is crafted! She must have done such extensive research to seemingly effortlessly transport the reader back to 19th century Egypt, and to depict all the social idiosyncrasies of living in the late 1800’s! Thank you Ms. Shomer for rendering a look at such an interesting time period! And for giving me a glimpse at what life with these two gifted minds must have been like!

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 21, 2013

    Gorgeously written, fascinating story and backgrounds. Well wort

    Gorgeously written, fascinating story and backgrounds. Well worth reading even if a little too long.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 18, 2013

    Interesting Idea Falls Flat

    This was a book group selection, so not my choice. That said, it seemed like an interesting idea, and was, for about the first 200 pages. Then it started to feel long, and what is really some beautiful writing was (in our book group's unanimous opinion) sullied by the author's endless portrayal of Gustave Flaubert's overactive libido. And that's the PC characterization. While it may by historically accurate, none of us wanted to read page after page describing Flaubert's obsession with femaale genitalia. The two stars are for the overall concept, which is good, and the author's painterly descriptions of Egypt, which are lovely. Otherwise, you might be better entertained elsewhere.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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