There were a couple of things that grabbed me immediately when I saw the publisher’s description of The Ambassador’s Wife by Jennifer Steil. The first was that Jennifer actually is an ambassador’s wife, so I thought it would be very interesting to read a novel by someone who had lived that life. The second was that the main character is an artist turned ambassador’s wife in the Middle East. To me, that seemed to have all kinds of potential for making an interesting tale. I’m so glad I offered to read The Ambassador’s Wife and I’ve been itching to share it with you. It’s a thriller but it’s also a story about diversity, about cultural misunderstandings and connections, and about the power of compassion.
Miranda is a feminist artist and has always lived a life that seemed free from the strictures of modern society. It’s a life that, for the most part, has worked well for her. She and her partner, Vicenta, have lived in different parts of the world but have called Mazrooq’s Old City their home for several years. It’s not a comfortable or even a safe place for two women who live as they do, but Miranda at least has loved being there. It feels like home and she can’t imagine leaving even if her partner doesn’t want to stay.
And then Miranda meets Finn. Finn is the British ambassador, a very dedicated and compassionate man, yet a man who lives in a world totally alien to Miranda’s, even though they are both living in Mazrooq. Their worlds are oil and water, yet they fall madly in love with each other. When they marry, Miranda is not prepared to become virtually a prisoner behind embassy walls. She hadn’t realized how free her life had been before becoming an ambassador’s wife and she chaffs at the restrictions, at the armed guards, at the complex security procedures that have to be conducted for the simplest things, at her inability to mingle with the women of Mazrooq who she adores. Even having her daughter, Cressida, who is the joy of her life, doesn’t cure her restlessness.
Maybe I should backtrack a bit here because Miranda has a secret that pre-dates her relationship with Finn. She had previously been teaching several young talented women in Mazrooq something they were strictly forbidden to do – draw and paint the human figure. These were very creative women locked in a society that forbid that creativity from expressing itself fully, so Miranda secretly taught them what no one else would.
In an effort to free them from seeing themselves as second class at best and property at worst, she went beyond simple art instruction to teach them to appreciate their own beauty through painting portraits of them – paintings that would literally result in all of their deaths if discovered. After the classes ended, Miranda couldn’t bear to destroy these beautiful works of freedom on so many different levels, so she locked them away so they can never been seen…at least that’s what she believes. Her plan is to burn them, although she keeps putting off destroying such beauty.
And then one day, the unthinkable happens to this ambassador’s wife. Miranda joins some of the non-Middle Eastern women friends she made through the embassy for a weekly hike accompanied by their bodyguards. She’s reveling in the open air and countryside, and the freedom of being even semi-normal again for a few hours, when their group is ambushed and taken hostage by militants. They are immediately separated and taken to different destinations, and Miranda is left alone in a remote, crude village hut where she is drugged and bound. Although she is fairly humanely treated, she is under no illusions that she will be found or that she will ever see her husband and baby again. She is determined to not give up hope that she can somehow escape on her own because she doesn’t see how anyone will ever find her.
“As she curls herself around the wasted body of a stranger’s child, cupping the tiny head in her hand, the remembered glow of a painting emerges unbidden from the gloom of Miranda’s mind. A woman sleeps in a boat, reclined in her husband’s arms and draped alongside the body of her sleeping child, bathed in a benediction of light…Opposite the slumbering family, Fortune plies the oars, with the assistance of a hopeful Cupid. Something about the image – the family’s relinquishing of control over their destiny – fills Miranda with terror…What was it?…The Dream of Happiness. That was it. Constance Mayer’s Dream of Happiness…When Miranda thinks back on her brief life with Cressida and Finn, this is the image that keeps returning to her. A moment of blissful unconsciousness, and then black.”
And so begins Miranda’s personal trial – a trial of faith and determination to survive and to reunite with the family she loves. And so begins Finn’s personal trial – a trial of bureaucracy, of impersonal reactions to very personal tragedy, of trying to be both parents to an infant while staying strong and doing his job, of being torn between a career he’s loved from Day 1 and a wife he would do anything to find alive and be reunited with. And so begins a trial for the young women of Mazrooq who owe Miranda so much, who fear their paintings will no longer be safe from discovery, and who know only too well what routinely becomes of Westerners abducted by militants.
Miranda is naïve but that is not always a bad thing. Her naiveté is both a blessing and a curse. Finn is also naïve in a very different way. He also cares about the people of Mazrooq and that shows in how he performs his job. Both are compassionate and caring people, and both channel that into their work. Needless to say, I instantly liked them both. Although I understood Miranda’s need to free the young women from their oppression in the only way she knew, I had to gasp when I read what she had done. Hindsight is always 20-20 but I felt this was a disaster waiting to happen from the beginning. At the same time, I had to admire her fearlessness and commitment. I won’t say anything more about Miranda’s abduction to avoid spoilers, except the obvious, that it is a crossroads in her life.
Jennifer Steil has written an amazing novel in The Ambassador’s Wife. I’ve been dying to share it with you since I read it last summer. Although it is a thriller given the circumstances that unfold, this is very much a character-driven novel and the characters enfolded me from the beginning. I was mesmerized by this story and the very real people in it. Jennifer Steil has masterfully written about clashing cultures in a way that is eye-opening and realistic. The Ambassador’s Wife portrays this mythical Middle Eastern country beautifully, and with an objectivity that is too often lacking in stories that take place in this part of the world. You won’t find any black-and-white thinking here but instead a more accurate rainbow of colors. I recommend The Ambassador’s Wife as a thriller that is most of all about love, friendship, and the humanity that underlies differences.
FYI: Anne Hathaway will produce and star in a TV limited series based on this novel. I can’t wait!
Can’t wait to read it? The Ambassador’s Wife is available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller below. If you download it as an e-book, you can have it to read immediately!
I’d love to get your comments on The Ambassador’s Wife, Jennifer Steil and/or her other work, and/or this review.