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Book Review: The Ruins of Us

Posted by gck Wednesday, January 11, 2012


The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen

Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)
Recommended for: people interested in other cultures (particularly Muslim or Arab cultures), fans of character-based contemporary fiction
Received ARC e-galley through NetGalley.

Book 1 of 52 in the “Around the World in 52 Books” challenge.
Country: Saudi Arabia

Back-cover summary:
More than two decades after moving to Saudi Arabia and marrying powerful Abdullah Baylani, American-born Rosalie learns that her husband has taken a second wife. That discovery plunges their family into chaos as Rosalie grapples with leaving Saudi Arabia, her life, and her family behind. Meanwhile, Abdullah and Rosalie’s consuming personal entanglements blind them to the crisis approaching their sixteen-year-old son, Faisal, whose deepening resentment toward their lifestyle has led to his involvement with a controversial sheikh. When Faisal makes a choice that could destroy everything his embattled family holds dear, all must confront difficult truths as they fight to preserve what remains of their world.

My review:
It would be easy for a novel written by an American writer about an American woman who married a Saudi man and moved to Saudi Arabia, only to discover years later that he had taken a second wife, to sink into a dramatic focus on mistreatment of women. However, this novel rises above that. Born to an expatriate family in Saudi Arabia, Keija Parssinen is the perfect person to tell this story. No, things are not equal between men and women in Saudi Arabia. But there is a reason the US Department of State has a page detailing the reality of being a Saudi wife for Americans who are considering this life -- despite the reputations and stereotypes, this country and culture has an allure that draws people to it. This novel explores that allure.

The writing is gorgeous, full of elegantly written descriptions. It is definitely a character-driven book, though, and in order to really like it, you must be okay with a good deal of backstory and a plot that doesn't always move forward quickly. The third person narration also switches between the perspectives of most of the major characters, so it is necessary to like or be interested in most of them. I personally found the characters to be interesting, if not all likable.

Most interesting to me was the character of Faisal, Abdullah and Rosalie's son, who gets caught up in a Muslim extremist group. There is a comparable character in the movie "Circumstance" who turns to fundamentalism, but his reasons for doing so are never truly revealed. In contrast, Faisal's motivations are easy to relate to. He is a confused teenager who has always had trouble fitting in. He wants something pure and good to believe in. And as he crosses the boundary into adulthood and realizes that his parents are not perfect, he uses religious self-righteousness to reject them.

All of the characters are, for the most part, well-meaning. But their occasional ill-thought mistakes, selfishness, and lack of communication slowly tear down the happy life they sought to build. They had me rooting for them to succeed each step of the way, even though it became clear that once the threads are too tangled, there is no simple happy ending.

This would be a great book club book, as there are many topics and character motivations that would be interesting to discuss.

Further thoughts that the book inspired:
Yes, there really is a US Department of State page titled “Marriage to Saudis.” Many of the questions answered on that page were addressed in the book as well. There were many things about marriage to a Saudi that I wasn’t previously aware of:

1. You have to get permission from the government! This was surprising to me. I think the book made a bigger deal out of it than it really is, but it still doesn’t sound like just bureaucracy, either.
2. If you get divorced, you (as the non-Saudi) are not getting your kids. No chance.
3. You and your children need an exit visa to leave the country, and this requires the permission of the husband or father. The US government can help get adult women out without the permission, but not children.

Serious stuff. I also found it kind of amusing how in the novel, Saudi men would drive across the border for “happy hour” in Bahrain, where they were able to drink alcohol. The conflict between the religious fundamentalists and the money-grubbing royal family is also a surprise. I suppose it shouldn’t be that surprising that politics breeds corruption, but it seemed like in a country where religious rules are so strict that the royal family would be the ones behind it.

Finally, it crossed my mind that I tend to think of expatriates as white people leaving the US and moving to a cheaper place to have a relaxing life, and immigrants as non-white people coming to the US for jobs. I mean, obviously I know that it is more than that, but if I had to think of the first defining image that came to mind for an expatriate and an immigrant, it would be a middle-aged American couple with an art studio and large pool in Mexico and an Indian or Chinese guy working in a US software company. Being so fully entrenched in the American mindset, I think of America as the place where people want to go, and the expats leave because they’re weird. But – duh – American expats are immigrants to another country. Not someone on an extended vacation (trying to eat, pray, and love!) or attempting to exploit the locals, Rosalie in this novel really is an immigrant, someone trying to assimilate into a country that doesn’t want her to be there. I enjoyed seeing things from that perspective.


  1. Reykjavic Says:
  2. Thank you for this thoughtful review!



  3. Jan S Says:
  4. I enjoyed reading your review GCK!


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