Again, hardly fantasy/sci-fi.
Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea.
There’s something to be said for an interesting cover: one of the biggest reasons that I initially bought this book was the fact that it’s cover is so interesting. I’m mildly interested in Middle-Eastern stuff, but not incredibly. I liked the idea of a glimpse into Saudi Arabian women, so that was a second tick. But the cover was what probably sealed the deal for me.
Anyway, the story is framed through the narrative of a Saudi woman posting messages on a YahooGroup; each Friday, she posts another excerpt of the lives of four friends: Gamrah, Sadeem, Michelle, and Lamees, all of whom are coming into their late teens and beginning their adult lives. All four are slightly different; Gamrah is the shy, slightly plain one, Sadeem is Gamrah’s closest friend and the much prettier one, Michelle is the slightly savvier one whose family moved back from America, Lamees is studious and wants to be a doctor. The characters themselves are distinct enough to be told apart, even if you start to feel by the end that Gamrah is a bit snivelly and Lamees is a bit too distant. That doesn’t matter that much, because at least I was feeling something for the characters.
The story mostly focuses on their love lives over a period of several years and in fact opens with Gamrah’s wedding. Where they have been close for years, through secondary school, their lives begin to diverge at the beginning of the book, and there is the feeling of regret as they regroup and realize they are all going down different paths in life, no matter how close they started at the beginning. That, too, rings true to me because it’s how I feel about a great number of people I went to high school with. Who you are at 16 or 17 or 18 is so different from who you are at 20 or 21, especially after you’ve been thrown into a new environment (college, marriage, work) for a couple of years.
Where the book falls short for me is the men. Time and time again, across characters, the men are first charming in some manner or another – exactly the charming way that the girl in question wants them to be – and then they’re revealed to be a liar or disinterested and the relationship ends. It was hard for me to tell one man apart from the other and by the time I was halfway through the book, I could already predict that the next relationship was going to end badly. It seemed to have little good to say about modern young Saudi men, except for the select few who the girls ended up with at the close of the story.
This book stirred up the Islamic world when it was published and even for someone with as little religious conviction as me, I can see why. It depicts women in a completely different light than the supposedly traditional Islamic woman. For that, it’s worth applause. But because I cannot make myself care about any of the men in the story, I cannot care as deeply about the women. On the other hand, the story is a light, easy, fun read that opened my eyes to another facet of Muslim life.