The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer


 Simon & Schuster (August 21, 2012)


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.


Romantic Historical Fiction

19th Century Egypt


REVIEW RATING: 3.5 stars


Gustave Flaubert, a French author is known particularly for his 1857 novel, Madame Bovary. Florence Nightingale, The Lady with the Lamp, an English nurse is known primarily for her leading work in nursing during the Crimean War. In The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, Enid Shomer writes a story, a re-imagining of a friendship and a blossoming romance between these two famous nineteenth century figures after meeting in Egypt on their separate tours. Although both Flaubert and Nightingale did both tour Egypt in 1849, they apparently never met.

The Twelve Rooms of the Nile reads beautifully. Enid Shomer’s prose is sublime. The descriptions of Egypt and the daily lives of the characters make for an entertaining read. Some of the narrative and dialogue of Flaubert is quite crude and blunt, yet it does suit both Flaubert and his friend and tour companion Max du Camp. They were not known for their restrained and moderate lives. But this novel had only one major setback for me and it is a rather important one. Where Nightingale lives a temperate, moral life above reproach, with what she believes a divine calling for her life, Flaubert is worldly, a lover of prostitutes and experienced in almost every form of carnality. For two such disparate personalities as Flaubert and Nightingale to have forged a friendship is of course possible. But to imagine them as almost-lovers I felt was implausible.

Debauchery, which he had practiced so assiduously, was not always satisfying. Perhaps that was why one of the things he liked about her was the way he was in her presence. Not that he was smarter or more high-minded, but he was different – more trusting, more trusted.

Flaubert was different around her. He came across as two different people. The real one, outside of Nightingale’s company and influence. And the other, nobler Flaubert whilst in Nightingale’s presence. Just being with Nightingale didn’t seem to me to be a convincing enough reason to believe he could leave dissipation and debauchery behind him. So while I felt unconvinced of a believable, romantic relationship between Flaubert and Nightingale, I do think this was a beautifully written, detailed and well-researched novel. The premise itself is highly imaginative and Ms Shomer’s prose alone makes this a worthy read.


No Responses

  1. Good review, Jill. The premise sounds intriguing and I bet the backdrop of Egypt goes a long way toward making this novel, but I’m not really a fan of complete fictionalization of very real people’s lives. I may check it out if the library gets it, though 🙂

    • Thanks Jenny! I also prefer my historical figures to remain basically unchanged, but the premise was certainly intriguing. Enid Shomer’s prose and descriptions of Egypt though, went a long way in soothing any qualms I had.

  2. A balanced review, Jill. I’m with Jenny in that I don’t really enjoy completely fictionalised accounts of the lives of ‘real people’ – there has to be at least some element of plausibilty and I think you’ve been very fair in your comments on that front.

    • Thanks Caz. I really wanted to do this novel justice, because it is written so beautifully, but also balance that with an honest opinion.

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