The Woman on the Orient Express is set in 1928, during Agatha Christie’s impromptu visit to Mesopotamia, i.e. Iraq. She travels on the Orient Express to escape her failed marriage to Archibald Christie (who is set to marry his mistress in a few days’ time) and the embarrassment of her “disappearance” and scandal that occurred two years earlier (her very own “Gone Girl” moment!). While on the Orient Express traveling to Iraq, she meets two women: Katharine Woolley and Nancy Nelson. All three women are harboring huge, life-defining secrets that haunt them, but all three eventually forge deep bonds of sisterhood and learn about themselves during the journey.
Halfway through the novel, Christie and her three-dimensional companions do reach Baghdad, and thus the second half of the novel is a glittering and realistic portrait of life in the Middle East during the late 20s. We visit a Bedouin camp, a Yazidi temple, open-air markets, and learn about the customs, lifestyles, and traditions of the Iraqi people during this time. The main portion of the novel is set on an archaeological dig at Ur, where Agatha Christie eventually met her second husband, Max Mallowan. And it is also the place where Christie absorbed enough material for half a dozen (or more) of her novels set in or inspired by Mesopotamia and the dig at Ur.
I was initially skeptical about this book; with Agatha Christie as the main protagonist, I was frightened that the book would come off as cheesy and overwritten, but I can confidently state that not only is this book neither of these things, but it also taught me a lot about Christie’s life and the kind of woman she was. It was a true pleasure to delve into such an interesting woman and author, the #1 author of all time, in fact.
One of the biggest drawbacks for me in this book were the historical liberties, although it’s not so bad with a little research and the afterword to clarify events! In reality, Christie met her husband Max during her second visit to Mesopotamia, not the first. Also, details from the book are based on hearsay or speculation, but the novelist expands them into fictional fact. There’s also a bookend storyline that is meant to add suspense, but ends up falling a little flat.
I would absolutely recommend this book despite its flaws. It’s very well written, packed with action but is inherently character-driven, and it’s a nice way to “get to know” the history of Agatha Christie.
Lovers of historical fiction and/or Agatha Christie, anyone who is interested in themes of sisterhood, tragedy, and the vicissitudes of marriage.