Keija Parsinnen’s novel The Ruins of Us tells the story of an American woman who married a Saudi Arabian and the challenges their family faces when their son reacts to his half-American status by becoming a radical. The story contains great material, and touches on themes that always interest me, such as exile, identity, and cultures in transition to modernity, although I wished the author would have delved into them more deeply. Parsinnen moves the story along well, and I would say it’s a well-paced, story-driven read.
Parsinnen lived in Saudi Arabia until she was 12 and then visited again briefly as an adult when her father was working there for Aramco. I also visited the country several years ago for work, and I found it interesting that the impressions that stuck with me most vividly about the atmosphere and general feeling of the country were different than those Parsinnen captured in the book. It would be interesting to talk with her about it and find out if she experienced the country differently, or just chose not to highlight certain aspects. I am really surprised that the book doesn’t convey the atmosphere I remember – maybe that is because my experience as an adult working on government issues was so different than Parsinnen’s memories of when she was a child there – the Saudi Arabia described in this novel is a much more tame and light place than I visited.
I also wished she had developed the idea of exile and identity further, and had given more sense of how the American wife might have changed after discovering her husband’s polygamy and in the aftermath of a dramatic episode with her son. When I was in Saudi Arabia I remember talking with some diplomats about the American women who marry Saudis and move to The Kingdom, and I’ve always been fascinated with what that must be like. There are good stories there, I’m sure, and I hope that Parsinnen writes further along those lines in her future books.
I don’t know if it’s fair for me to criticize the book because it didn’t have the exact sense of place and language and deep exploration of certain themes or character development that I was hoping for when I picked it up – it’s a good story with interesting material, and I hope that Parsinnen and other authors continue to write about the topics and questions The Ruins of Us touches on.
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