In a captivating book about one of the great English-language interpreters of the Middle East, Geniesse (a novelist and former New York Times reporter) draws on the huge and expressive bulk of Freya Stark's letters to paint a personal and professional portrait of rare accomplishment. Stark (1893-1993) lived a tumultuous, semi-privileged, and constricting early life, which she broke out of by learning Arabic and then, in 1927, sailing off to Lebanon. She quickly found her double vocation, as intrepid explorer and eloquent letter-writer, then pursued and built on these skills through two glorious decades, achieving best-sellerdom, fame, and the company of the high and mighty. During World War II, she even acquired a modicum of political influence. (That said, Stark's one sustained political effort, a British government-sponsored speaking tour to the United States in 1943-44, was a disaster, with her anti-Zionist message finding much attention but very little sympathy and she, late of Persia and the Hadramaut, finding little in turn to charm her in America's modernity.)
But if her public life was a roaring success, her private life was notably less so. Two amusing chapters concern the "three foolish virgins" (about an episode in 1937-38, when Stark and two other female scholars went off to Yemen) and her only marriage (at age 54) to a man who very soon after the wedding revealed his homosexuality (or rather, she could no longer pretend not to see it). In general, with the advancement of Stark's career, her biography becomes more interesting. In all, the evocation of a world only sixty years back but so removed from ours in its rhythms and its concerns—with the intense letter writing, the extended visits to country houses, and the imperatives of empire—will keep the attention of every reader.