In her harrowing and brilliant novel “The Ambassador’s Wife,” Jennifer Steil tells the story of a free-spirited woman whose marriage to a British ambassador to an Islamic country can’t protect her from violence. Steil appears Tuesday, Aug. 18, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Brilliantly drawn and deeply troubling, Jennifer Steil’s “The Ambassador’s Wife” (Doubleday, 389 pp., $26.95) is a novel of love, deception and consequences. Steil’s story is set in a fictitious Islamic country (“Mazrooq”) that seems harrowingly real. It is here that the British ambassador, Finn, meets the free-spirited bisexual artist Miranda; they marry and start a family with baby daughter Cressida.
Finn and Miranda, a former Seattleite who has left an art-teaching job at Cornish College to live in Mazrooq, are blissfully happy together, though Miranda chafes at the safety strictures imposed by the very real possibility of kidnapping or assassination.
This is a highly dangerous posting. And as we discover at the beginning of the novel, Miranda is indeed kidnapped — an event that has unthinkable consequences not only for her family, but also for the Mazrooqi women who have secretly been studying painting with her. The art class is an activity strictly forbidden to them, especially the painting of female nudes, and those carefully hidden canvases are a time bomb waiting to detonate.
The author of “The Ambassador’s Wife” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 18, at Elliott Bay Book Co., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com). She will read at 7:30 p.m., Thursday Aug. 20, at the Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island; free (206-842-5332 or eagleharborbooks.com).
Author Steil, who is herself an ambassador’s wife (her husband is the European Union ambassador to Bolivia, and she earlier ran a newspaper in Yemen), skillfully creates Miranda’s milieu: the cobblestone streets of the Old City, the pomegranates and bougainvillea in the hot sun, the snippets of Arabic, the complicated people who are friendly and generous and who massacre infidels and torture small animals.
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We see how her world both expands and shrinks upon her marriage, as she learns to adapt to a new world of privilege and constriction; how guarded she must be, physically and socially; and how she must deal with the ubiquitous bodyguards that accompany the ambassador and his wife everywhere.
What makes all this tolerable is the very real love Finn and Miranda share, and their sense of almost disbelief at their good fortune in finding each other and creating their delightful little toddler.
Their solid marriage seems all the more surprising since Miranda has such a complicated amatory history, so much so that when her new husband inquires whether any professions are omitted from the list of her previous lovers, she has to think for a moment before coming up with “lawyer.”
Her past is a freely offered open book — but Finn’s is not. An earlier serious indiscretion resulting in several deaths is a guilty secret that has later consequences for the couple and their nemesis, a slimy failed diplomat.
Despite her love for the country, Miranda’s fury at the episodes of Mazrooqi violence grows after a deadly attack on the American embassy, when “her heart staggered with rage” over the crimes committed in the name of religion.
It’s not hard to understand why she takes risks to expand the lives of the women she teaches to paint. When Miranda is kidnapped, they vow to help find her. “Miranda she cut windows in our lives,” one writes to Finn. “We will cut through mountains to find her.”
Steil’s narrative hops among several viewpoints and dates, a practice that at first seems disconcerting, but finally makes sense as the reader pieces together the narrative and its chronology.
The consequences of Miranda’s harrowing captivity, and her deep attachment to the orphaned baby she cares for in her cell, lead inexorably to a finish that feels a little rushed after the drawn-out scenes of imprisonment. Still, this is a richly imagined story. The complexity of even minor subsidiary characters and the sensory evocation of place will compel the reader forward.