The Ruins of Us
By Keija Parssinen
Despite what you might think, I listen to you. I really do. I know it doesn't seem that way given that I seem to read whatever I want and it would seem that I don't listen to your recommendations and almost never act upon them. That has more to do with my location than anything, but I do try.
I love visiting other book blogs and while I'm cruising around I keep a pen a paper handy. I jot down titles and authors that pique my interest and every time I go to make a Kindle order (which isn't as often as it should be but my financial situation calls for book buying prudence) I only order books that have been recommended via email or blog. This title is proof positive.
One of my favorite blogs, Raging Bibliomania, reviewed this title a few months back and given that I love novels set in the Middle East (and that try as I might, I could not find a single title on her blog that I had previously read), I bought it on my Kindle. So now you know! Give me enough time and I'll read the books you read! I promise.
Anyway, onto the book...
The Ruins of Us is a novel by Keija Parssinen, an American citizen and third generation expat born in Saudi Arabia. It is the story of a cross-cultural family living in Saudi Arabia who, due to several mitigating factors, are being pulled apart at the seams. Rosalie, like the author, is the daughter of an American expat who grew up in Saudi Arabia before moving back to the States for school. She develops an obsession with the Arabian peninsula so much so that she falls in love with and subsequently marries the one-handed Abdullah an Arabian student as the University of Texas.
Fast forward to the present day: Rosalie and Abdullah are well into middle age, Abdullah has surreptitiously taken a second wife (legal, but not especially condoned) while Rosalie and Abdullah's 16-year old son seems to be falling in with a militant crowd of Jihadis. Add into the mix the family's best friend, a pathetic american divorcee with an unhealthy crush on Rosalie and you have the makings of a solid literary melodrama.
And if this novel were set in Madison, Wisconsin or Biloxi, Mississippi or Boulder, Colorado that's exactly what it would be: a family melodrama not unlike so many others. Much like American Dervish, What makes this novel so unique, and so compelling, are the intangible elements that are placed the character's way due to their setting and tradition. The establishment of Abdullah's second marriage, the fact that Rosalie, as a foreign spouse, has no rights, the constant adherence to religious and social mores, the elements of change, especially among the younger generation via social media and other technology made accessible by the extravagant wealth as well as the ever-present religious fundamentalism that threatens to tear the country apart.
All of these themes turn a simple family melodrama into a novel that should not be ignored. For anyone curious about life in The Kingdom, Parssinen's novel is a poignant portrait of family life on the peninsula and how traditions and social changes affect the household (or in this case: households). The story is told from the perspective of several characters (divided by chapter). This gives the reader a chance to empathize with each and every character and see how each of them have gotten to where they are and how they have justified their outlandish (to the reader) decisions to themselves and their immediate surroundings. Such an approach does much in terms of understanding the culture and the sets of circumstances standing in this family's way.
But that's not all!
As with so many great novels, Parssinen has done a wonderful job of establishing the setting not only as a location for the story but also as a character unto itself. Parssinen's Saudi Arabia throbs with vitality and contradictions throughout the narrative. The history of the peninsula is juxtaposed wonderfully against the recent decadence of oil wealth. The religious rigidity and intensity of the populace is counterbalanced with their humor and hospitality. You can practically see Parssinen pining for her days in Saudi Arabia while simultaneously reflecting on why she's better off elsewhere.
The Ruins of Us was a stunningly great read and I encourage anyone even a little interested in these themes to check this one out.
I, once again, really have to thank Zibilee over at Raging Bibliomania. She she recommends good books!