“Girls of Riyadh”
by Rajaa Alsanea (Penguin Press, 384 pages, $24.95)
You could call it “Sex in the Arabian City.”
In her bold debut novel “Girls of Riyadh,” Rajaa Alsanea chronicles the lives of four young Saudi women as they navigate the obstacle-laden path to love, littered with universal challenges as well as those borne of local customs.
Meet Sadeem, a business management major whose fiance suddenly and inexplicably breaks up with her after an intimate evening, propelling her to devour books by Freud so she can get a handle on what went wrong.
Then there’s Michelle, daughter of a Saudi man and American woman, who openly dismisses cultural practices such as covering her face in front of unfamiliar men. But when her family’s lack of tribal affiliation jeopardizes her relationship with her boyfriend, she comes to realize that she can’t escape some traditions of the conservative kingdom.
Gamrah, the first of the quartet to tie the knot, finds married life not at all how she imagined. The envy of her friends at the beginning of the book, her story becomes perhaps the most pitiful of all.
Rounding them out is Lamees, a pragmatic medical student who takes heed of the lessons her friends learned the hard way. When a serious prospect shows up in her life, she devises a set of rules:
“I will not allow myself to love him until I sense his love towards me. I will not become attached to him before he proposes. I will not live in a hopeless fantasy.”
An anonymous narrator tells these stories of her friends through a series of e-mails distributed by a Yahoo! Groups listserv. That she challenges social norms, talks about romantic relationships happening outside the traditional framework, brings up issues of racism, divorce and homosexuality, prompts a firestorm among some of her readers – not unlike the real-life response to this tome when it was first released in Arabic in 2005.
The narrator addresses her critics, writing: “Everyone is condemning my bold writing, and perhaps my boldness in writing it all. Everyone is blaming me for the fury I have stirred up around taboo topics that in this society we have never been accustomed to discussing so frankly and especially when the opening salvos come from a young woman like me. But isn’t there a starting point for every drastic social change?”
The women’s different outlooks on life and love, tradition and religion provide a refreshingly realistic portrayal of an often-stereotyped group.
Alsanea uses footnotes to clarify some cultural references; readers could have benefited from more of these and from better explanations in some cases.
While it starts to drag on near the end, this novel is for the most part engaging, enlightening and enjoyable.