Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Ruins of Us

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.

Shout Out

I, once again, really have to thank Zibilee over at Raging Bibliomania. She she recommends good books!


Man of la Book said...

I also liked this book (my thoughts: I could have used more insights about the acceptance of polygamy especially in a mixed marriage like that.

Great review.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I liked this book too, although I wanted to read a little bit more about the daughter.

Ryan said...

I agree about the daughter. I wish she had figured in more than she did.

Little Girl Lost said...

I have been reading a lot about this book. thank you for your thoughts Ryan. You make the book sound fascinating!

Please do visit my blog at
and if you like it, please follow or subscribe!

Athira said...

I must have somehow missed this book at zibilee's blog! It does sound fabulous. I haven't read much Middle Eastern lit lately, but I'd love to get back to them, as it was my home for a good part of my life.

Ryan said...

LGL: It is fascinating (thought with some faults).

Athira: You may have simply forgotten. This book goes back several months. Where did you live?

Lisa said...

I added this one when I saw Zibilee's review as well. Now I've got to move it to the top of the books-to-buy list. Like you, I find myself drawn to books set in the Middle East; you always learn so much and it does make such an impact on the story.

Wendy said...

You might also enjoy following Coffee and a Book Chick. I noticed several sites that she also follows. I enjoy her reviews as well. Glad I found your blog, I enjoy reading your reviews.

Ryan said...

Lisa: I know. I don't know what it is about Middle Eastern stories, but they draw me in so quickly.

Wendy: Thanks for the compliment. I will definitely check out Coffee and a Book Chick! Thanks!

Marie said...

OK, I'll look for it!

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

Great review, Ryan. The cultural aspects of the book sound fascinating.

bookspersonally said...

Oh this sounds like a terrific read (& one I might not have otherwise heard of.) Thanks!

Ryan said...

Yeah... definitely check this one out!

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