Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen — 352 pgs

The Baylani family is slowly disintegrating. When matriarch Rosalie discovers that her husband, Abdullah, has taken another wife and has been hiding this secret from her for over two years, she’s understandably distraught and furious. Rosalie is an American, and it’s been decades since she left her home in Texas to share a life with Abdullah in Saudi Arabia. Diluting her foreignness down to almost imperceptible levels, Rosalie has embraced her new culture and has pinned all her dreams and happiness on Abdullah, who has betrayed her in the worst way possible. Meanwhile, Rosalie and Abdullah’s children, the severe and stoic Faisal and the more whimsical and free-spirited Miriam, are spinning off into their own private orbits of loneliness, confusion and, in the case of Faisal, extreme religious pliability. But with Abdullah’s secret out in the open, the family, once close and loving, begins to slowly unravel into a group of people fighting for emotional survival at the expense of one another. When Rosalie decides to take her future into her own hands, she sets off a devastating chain of events that will lead to one member of the clan contemplating and executing the unforgivable. Now it’s up to the people around them and the family themselves to pull themselves back from the brink where they’ve been teetering for so long. In this provocative and gripping look into a Saudi marriage that’s falling apart, the reader watches as each piece of the puzzle rapidly falls away, leaving only heartbreak and emptiness behind.

Recently I’ve seen a lot of reviews of this book and the majority of them have been tepid. I had wondered, after reading them, if my experience would be the same, and had concerns about what I was getting myself into. I think part of the reason that my opinion differed from most of the other reviewers’ was because as I was reading, I became imminently aware that each of these characters was deeply flawed in one way or another. I became engrossed in an attempt to understand where their motives lay and invested in learning whether they would find the redemption that they were so longing for. While I do agree somewhat with the reviewers who felt the book was a bit salacious, I found the scandals that were created in the narrative to have the qualities of a motivator that lent the plot credibility and justified the characters’ suffering and ire.

I really felt for Rosalie. Here was a woman who left America behind to follow her soul mate into the desert and begin a family with him, only to be strung along into a multiple marriage by the man she trusted most int he world. Rosalie was no shrinking violet, but her helplessness at the situation she was in made me feel a deep thrum of compassion for her. Sure, she could have been a little less focused on herself and more in touch with her kids, but what parent couldn’t? In Rosalie’s desperate mental revolutions, she felt that she was trapped, indeed knew that she was. Though she was a spitfire, some of her life force seemed to drain away from her in her struggle to understand why Abdullah had strayed from their marriage and into another woman’s arms. It was not only that he had strayed, but had *married* another woman without her knowledge that both scandalized and shocked me.

Abdullah, on the other hand, was a very disagreeable character for me to deal with. He was absurdly selfish in all that he did and his rationalizations for his behavior stuck me as not only crude, but strangely immature. When faced with a chasm of growing separation from Rosalie, what does Abdullah do? Why, he goes out and gets another wife, of course! Though Saudi custom doesn’t forbid this, in modern day Saudi Arabia, this is a behavior that is frowned upon. The fact that he keeps this woman a secret from his family is an indicator of just how wrong he knows his behavior is. Abdullah is self centered and indulgent with himself. He gives what is in his pockets and bank accounts, not in his heart, and it was very repugnant to me to have to spend time with him on the page. I grew tired of him rather quickly and wondered how it was that Rosalie ever fell in love with such a man.

The third point of this plot triangle is Faisal, Rosalie and Abdullah’s son. As he matured, his belief system has become radical, and I got the feeling that he was in the throes of a moral and ethical search that really had no answer. He was adored by his mother and complicit with his father, but at some level, Faisal believed that he was beyond them in his spiritual capacities. This isn’t so different than a lot of teenagers in the West feel, but in a country that’s ripe with fanatics and whose religion demands such a total giving of one’s entity, Faisal does much more than just lose his way. He becomes dangerous to some degree and his moral indignation at his parents’ plight results in a twisted form of retribution that is meted out in intense ways. Faisal’s basic struggle is one for acceptance, and when the wrong people start to accept him, his psyche begins to become warped and unstable.

This was a great novel for those readers who like deeply resonant and dramatic looks into dysfunctional families. The setting provides a new and almost unprecedented look into a culture that is beset with very different ideals and dangers than those posed in the West. While the book does provide a heightened level of drama, it’s a story that many will find intoxicating due to its exposure of issues that are explosive and that target themes of forgiveness, culpability and regret. A very thought-provoking read; Recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Keija Parssinen was born in Saudi Arabia and lived there for twelve years as a third-generation expatriate. She earned a degree in English literature from Princeton University and received her MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she held a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. For The Ruins of Us, her first novel, she received a Michener-Copernicus Award. She lives with her husband on the edge of a quarry in Missouri.

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TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, January 17th:Book Hooked Blog
Wednesday, January 18th:Take Me Away
Thursday, January 19th:Broken Teepee
Friday, January 20th:Bibliosue
Monday, January 23rd:Book Club Classics!
Tuesday, January 24th:Wandering Thoughts of a Scientific Housewife
Thursday, January 26th:Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesday, January 31st:Col Reads
Wednesday, February 1st:The House of the Seven Tails
Thursday, February 2nd:Raging Bibliomania
Monday, February 6th:Library of Clean Reads
Tuesday, February 7th:Man of La Book
Wednesday, February 8th:2 Kids and Tired Book Reviews

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


Jenny said...

Despite the complaints I had about this I did like it overall. It seems like you liked it more, though. I just felt like some of Abdullah's actions or thoughts were sooo immature that they just couldn't be realistic, LOL! But there is a lot that could be discussed from this book. And on some level I found myself relating to Faisal ONLY in that his sense of belonging was affected by his biracial/bicultural heritage, and to me he overcompensated by throwing himself into the religious stuff. Anyway, great review!!

Lisa said...

Your last paragraph absolutely convinced me that this is a book for me. One of my book club members read this one and loved it as well. She and I both love to read books about other cultures and know, going in, that they may be a bit tough to read.

Stacy at The Novel Life said...

I cannot begin to fathom what life would be like as the wife of a man from Saudi Arabia. And the disconnect you mentioned the wife had from her children at times IS understandable if one has ever been in the throes of a messy divorce. It's very difficult to not get all wrapped up in one's own problems while forgetting the children are hurting too. What an intensely emotional book this sounds like.

Suko said...

Intense review! Just from reading this review, I feel sympathy for Rosalie. Her husband sounds extremely selfish and immature.

Amy said...

I'm not sure about this one. I said no to a review copy for the same reason that I'm still uncomfortable thinking about it. While she was born in Saudi Arabia, the novel seems very much a portrayal of the Saudi man as terrible, the American woman as suffering because of it, and the religion as bad and etc. I think I wouldn't be able to give the book a fair chance. I would just be frustrated with the stereotypes that are in it as well, even if she doesn't exploit them as much as I am concerned she does.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I enjoy reading stories with flawed characters and/or dysfunctional families, so I might be in the "like this book camp." On the list it goes.

Thanks for the insightful review.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Really a great review, but I have to be careful about WHEN I read stories about dysfunctional families. If I am not in a calm state of mind, I find myself rolling my eyes at all the drama, no matter how intense.

bermudaonion said...

I've seen those tepid reviews too and always thought I'd enjoy the book more than they did. The premise sounds fascinating to me. Thanks for a great review!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I too, like Sandy, prefer to avoid books about dysfunctional families! Very interesting review though!

Jennifer | Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I've been wondering about this one, and I think it sounds like a book I would really enjoy. Great review!

Ti said...

You said this, "This was a great novel for those readers who like deeply resonant and dramatic looks into dysfunctional families." And then I said... whoa... that is for me! I have seen this book all over and it doesn't sound like my kind of book at ALL but when I read that sentence of yours, my eyes popped open.

Ryan said...

I'm currently reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover and Ruins of Us sounds hauntingly similar. Since I am enjoying my book so much, I'm putting this one on my list of books to watch out for. Thanks.

Jenners said...

This sounds like a very dysfunctional family. Sometimes I like books like that -- if only because it makes me feel better about my own family. Still, I'm not 100% sure about this yet … despite your wonderful review.

Unknown said...

I think this sounds like a really interesting book, but I'm not sure I stand on wanting to read it. The cultural differences I think I'd suck up like a sponge, but the lies and mistrust, not so much.
As always Heather, a wonderfully written review.

Harvee said...

I like the fact that the author was born in and lived in Saudi Arabia for 13 years. Makes me think she may have more insights than we do about a culturally mixed family like this one.

Beth F said...

I've been on the fence about this, but now I think I might really like it. I like books that make me think.

Iris said...

Like Amy, I said no to a review copy of this because it reminded me so much of Western stereotypes of Islam & "men from the Middle East". I know this story may be true and I'm sure women have experienced this, but I do feel this type of story has been told too often in the West, perhaps, while other relations between men and women in Middle Eastern countries remain underexplored. Like Amy, I don't think I could have given this a fair chance, being too scared to unconsciously underwrite steoreotypes in reading/reviewing the book. I just haven't made up my mind on the subject and how to approach it and so I'm always very hesitant about such books. I'm even insecure whether I should post the comment. I don't know, it's such a difficult topic!

Anyway, I did enjoy reading your review.

Buried In Print said...

Your thoughts definitely make this book sound interesting to me; I agree that accepting that characters are not necessarily like-able, early in the course of reading a novel, can vitally change your approach and experience of the story.

It's easy to get caught up in what you don't like about a novel's characters, and that's not necessarily any sort of reflection on the author's skill. In fact, I think many times that reflects a greater skill, because they were able to engage your emotions to such a degree.

Zibilee said...


I am really glad that you commented and shared your opinions with me, because I hadn't considered that aspect of the book, and you opened my eyes to the inherent problems of a book like this. I told Amy that I didn't read much into it, and was just reacting to the story on the page, but I do totally see your point, and can agree with you. I can easily see how this book can be seen as culturally disrespectful, and can paint things in a negative light as to Saudi Arabian men and their customs. I was so glad to have gotten your perspective on it, and I am glad that you made me think about this book in a new light.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I'm really enjoying the conversation raised in the comment section regarding stereotypes. That's one thing I really love about blogs: the ability to discuss a potentially controversial book with other readers.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book and being a part of the tour.

Suzanne said...

I'm glad to see you enjoyed this book. You looked at the story from a different perspective than I did, and I found your review gave me some more to think about.

Vasilly said...

This sounds like a pretty good book. I have a soft spot for dysfunctional families so I'll add this to my tbr list.

P.S. I finally sent off your package of ARCs that you won last June! ;-)

Kaye said...

I guess I've been under a rock because I've never heard of this one. It does sound intriguing though.Your review is wonderful!

Darlene said...

I'm glad you liked this book as I did. You know I'm not entirely sure the book just painted this family as a stereotype because for the majority of their years they lived as a modern Saudi family. It was just when Abdullah felt the need to justify his actions did he fall back on old custom. Either way I enjoyed the novel because I always do feel drawn to stories that involve some type of family drama.

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

I'm just starting this one as I'm at the end of the tour. I've had reservations about requesting it, but it sounded intriguing. Great review and really good comments. I'm so glad to have seen these.

2 Kids and Tired Books

Unknown said...

It is so interesting to read your thoughts on this book after having also read it!
I have a different view of Rosalie. I don't think she was helpless except when she wanted to act that way. And I didn't feel badly for her having left America to come to SA and marry Abdullah because she wanted to live in Saudi Arabia and preferred SA to America. I though the paragraphs where she talked about when she fell in love with SA, when it became her country were interesting. But I think I prefer America!

I also thought Rosalie was too caught up in the lifestyle of wealthy women in SA. She changed from the spitfire American woman she was into a pampered, spoiled wealthy Saudi wife focused completely on herself. It seemed that as her children aged, she became distant from them, as if when they no longer adored her she didn't try to understand them or relate to them. That's what bothered me the most about both Rosalie and Abdullah. Had they paid more attention to the children as they grew, and especially to Faisal, I believe what happened could have been avoided.
I think Faisal was a confused kid looking for someone to understand him, for support, a sense of belonging. She and Abdullah didn't even know how he was teased by the kids at school. I think Rosalie needed to communicate better with everyone in her family instead of all the shopping, walking, sunbathing etc. So did Abdullah. I kind of had it when, knowing how Faisal felt about Dan, she still met with Dan to help her. Her plan showed no concern or thought for her children, who they were and how they felt. She was just going to take one or both of them with her without talking to them about it.

I did feel badly for Rosalie about Abdullah marrying Isra and I thought it was awful that he lied to her about it. I didn't understand why he didn't, at some point, tell Rosalie that he missed the woman he met in America and thr woman she was when they married. I think part of the reason she became a Saudi wife is because that's what she thought would make him happy. And had they communicated I think that 2nd marriage wouldn't have happened. Both Rosalie and Abdullah changed during the course of their marriage and he drank and partied and she became self-righteous and priveleged. And they both ignored Faisal and Mariam more amd more as they grew.

I didn't care for Abdullah either and didn't like that he married another woman but it didn't shock me as much as it shocked you and I don't know why! I felt they were both to blame for their problems with each other and their children.

Sorry to say so much here! Your review is wonderful and made me think more about the book. I've said this before and I'm saying it now, I should have talked to you while we were both reading the book!

Andi said...

GREAT review, Heather! I admire the depth and precision in your reviews, and this one was no different. Very well done. I've seen this book all over the blogs, but I haven't paid much attention. Thanks for bringing it to light for me!

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