In late December, just before 2014 breathed its last stuttered gasps into the voodoo -infused New Orleans night, I met an angel. Or I though she was an angel. Maybe it was the wine talking, but when I first saw her, she stood under a strand of white lights in a bookstore courtyard, her eyelids painted with glitter and flashing in the moonlight. Her almost waist length hair sprang from her head in gorgeous gray ringlets that seemed to be so many lovely tentacles, grasping at the world around her, straining for human connection. She was surrounded by mesmerized admirers, lapping up her every word. If the attention made her feel uncomfortable, she didn’t show it. She smiled in a way few people over the age of five ever do, like she meant it, like she wasn’t hiding anything, like she didn’t know how to wear a mask, though she proved at the New Year’s Eve Ball a few days later that she knew how to make a masquerade look good.A few times in my life—I can count them on one hand—I’ve known a person the moment I saw her, as if her name was scribbled under my DNA, sequestered in some secret place science has yet to reach. That was how it was with Jennifer. I knew instantly I was going to love her always. We were both writers attending the Hands On Literary Festival & Masquerade Ball. I was launching my poetry book, Siren Song
. It was my second book of 2014. I was already dizzy with new adventures and book tours and wine. (Did I mention wine was involved in my 2014? Because it most definitely was.) Jennifer was slated to read from her upcoming novel, The Ambassador’s Wife
, at a panel the day after we met. I walked to her instantly, like I knew her, because somehow I did. We drank pinot noir and spoke under the stars, and by the time we were done pouring out our life’s stories, I had declared I was keeping her for the rest of my life. I meant it. She was the kind of fascinating that comes along once every ten years, an actress turned journalist turned ambassador’s wife turned award-winning memoirist turned novelist. During the first half hour of conversation, she told me what it was like to fall in love with the British Ambassador to Yemen. Then she told me how it felt to be kidnapped by terrorists. Then she spoke frankly about the woes of needing to pee while in a convoy of armed cars. She told all of these stories nonchalantly, smiling serenely, the way a less interesting person might talk about having encountered a nice golden retriever during a morning walk.
We went for food after the bookstore closed. I promised before we parted I would come hear her read in the morning. I was nervous. If you’re an artist of any kind, you know that there is nothing worse than meeting a fellow artist whom you love only to find out that you hate her art. I wanted Jennifer’s writing to be good. I needed it to be good. I’m a terrible liar. If her art was bad, the truth would somehow slip out some night over cocktails, and then what? My new glittery muse would think me a judgmental asshole, and I just couldn’t have that.
Fastforward. I am sitting in the front row at Jennifer’s reading. She is even more lovely in the daylight than she was at night. She’s reading a section from her book, which it turns out is about an ambassador’s wife who gets kidnapped by terrorists. I know this has happened to her in real life because she told me the story the night before, though she spent only a day in captivity, while her book’s protagonist Miranda is a hostage for months. Listening to Jennifer read, I forget how much I want the book to be good because it is good. So good I want to cry. So I good that for a moment, I forget about anything but Jennifer’s lovely prose and the terrifyingly human story it spins. In the story, Miranda, who has a child back at home, is attempting to breastfeed an almost-dead infant that has been rescued from the bombed out rubble of a nearby building. I’m on the edge of my seat, hungry for more. Will the baby survive? Hell, will the ambassador’s wife survive?
I’m sorry to tell you that the effervescent Jennifer is a tease. She draws me in and then stops, closing the book at the most critical moment imaginable and beaming, the way she does when delivering news about terrorists and bombings and unbearable cliff hangers. I feel as if I’ve been slapped.
“Read more,” I want to demand, but it doesn’t seem proper. Instead, I approach her after the audience has dwindled and order her to give me an advance reader copy of her book because I must know what happens. A month later, we meet up in New York City at a charming cafe with two other lovely writer friends. We share wine. We talk. I set a cloth napkin on fire. (No, I’m not kidding.) Jennifer finds my propensity for accidental pyromania charming. She gives me a copy of her book as a reward, and off I go. I read the first sentence on the train. “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.”
Holy shit. If you are a word addict like me, if you crave lovely language the way rats jones for scraps, you know what I felt when I read those words. Dizzy. Giddy. I stopped to text her. Oh. My. God. I’ve read one sentence. I already know your writing is exquisite.
She texted back: You’re drunk.
She had a point. I was.
I tried again the next day, when the harsh light of morning combined with a hellacious hangover combined with the shame of realizing I had set a napkin on fire in a public place was wont to suck the joy out of everything. I read the words again. I texted Jennifer. I’m sober now. Your words are still amazing.
And I didn’t put the book down again until I had almost reached the end of the book. I didn’t put it down because I couldn’t. The only thing almost as wonderful as Jennifer, it turned out, was her writing. She whisked me away to a fictional Middle Eastern country called Mazrooq. She brought her world to life in a way that only a woman who lived in the Middle East for years and made a name for herself by publishing a travel memoir could. I saw the colors in the marketplace, heard the morning prayers, tasted the pomegranates, sweet breads, and wines. I understood the political climate, the danger a free spirited, bisexual artist named Miranda faced in a country where deviations from sexual norms were punishable by death and painting sentient beings was an affront to Allah.
Miranda is an unforgettable character who risks everything to teach brave Mazrooqi women how to paint in secret. She understands longing, understands that these women must paint, that an artist’s calling is carved into her bones. But when she falls in love with Finn, a brilliant, charming, generous ambassador, she becomes something quite other than the free-spirited, wild thing she was before she met her husband. She becomes an ambassador’s wife. The book’s title is almost ironic because while Miranda loves her husband deeply, the last thing she wants is for her identity to be absorbed into his. Luckily for her, it can’t be. Her spirit is too strong. Even while wining and dining dignitaries, she maintains her unadulterated sense of self, her joyful passion for living, and her love for painting. She gives birth to her daughter, Cressie, the second great love of her life. Just when it seems like she has acquired everything she could ever dream of, her perfect world is shattered. She is brutally captured by terrorists during a walk through the countryside.
In less adept hands, this story could have become something meaningless and slick, one of those insubstantial action-adventures that gets made into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Angelina Jolie in hot pants. But Jennifer’s story is anything but slick. It is at times gritty, at times delicate. It unfolds gracefully and slowly enough to allow readers to relish the colors of each character that leaps onto the page. Rather than telling her tale chronologically, she jumps back and forth through time so one never has the opportunity to forget that the starving Miranda in her filthy cell is a mother and a wife, a woman of abiding substance, a woman with a rich history. She is much more than a victim of terrorism, and much more than an ambassador’s wife.
I love Jennifer Steil. She’s charming. She’s glittery. She adores me more after I set napkins on fire. But even if I didn’t, I tell you, I would be utterly enchanted and mesmerized by the gorgeous work of art that is The Ambassador’s Wife.
If you read my contributions to this press, then you already know I’m a groupie. I’m getting a Jennifer Steil T-shirt made up as we speak. When she comes to the U.S. to tour after her novel’s release on July 28, I am going to stalk her, front row center, at all of her readings. I’m going to buy her glitter for her eyelids. I’m going to set things on fire to amuse her. I’m going to be Jennifer’s Steil’s biggest fan and then some.
Addendum: I was going to say I’m going to be her bitch, but that seemed too sassy. Then I remembered I’m writing this for Burlesque Press. I can be as sassy as I please. So I’ll say it. Ladies and gentlemen (imagine me clinking my fork against a wine glass): I’m going to be Jennifer Steil’s bitch.
About Tawni Waters