I finally made it back to the library yesterday and this book caught my eye (yesterday was grey and rainy so I spent the rest of the day reading it; it was not small but a quick read nonetheless.) I read the back and was intrigued by the plot synopsis, though the quotes were uninspiring. I gave the first page a shot, anyways, and was quickly hooked.
The Ruins of Us is the story of an American woman, Rosalie, who married a wealthy Arab man, Abdullah, and, 25 years and 2 kids into their marriage, discovers that Abdullah has taken a second wife (and hidden it from her.) Rosalie, who genuinely loves her husband, her adopted country, and her life as a nonpracticing Muslim, finds herself at an impasse right as her son finds himself influenced by a religious man with dangerous beliefs.
At its core, this book is about a failing marriage, a middle-aged love story. Abdullah and Rosalie both love each other but are dealing with the realities of growing older and facing the inertia of their life together. It’s a true love story, though not a romance. Abdullah is a good guy, if spoiled, and Rosalie is a good woman, if somewhat made passive by a life of convenience. The book doesn’t focus as much on cultural differences as I would expect; Rosalie is pretty well assimilated into the Arabic culture and truly doesn’t mind the restrictive laws of Saudi Arabia. (She is also more than a little protected by Abdullah’s status and wealth; this, I think, plays a lot into her worldview and decisions.)
The book is also fairly realistic about the realities of Saudi’s current political state; Rosalie knows about all the limitations put upon her but is not ever scared of Abdullah abusing them or her. The aftereffects of 9/11 are talked about, as are the, er, foibles of the ruling family. Again, though, the family is quite wealthy and sheltered, so while evils, injustices, and cultural differences are acknowledged, many of them aren’t explored in depth. (Which feels very realistic of an upper class family, honestly. The characters are not unsympathetic to the challenges others face; it’s just that the draconian laws don’t affect them as much.)
The major exception to this is the son, who is struggling with being an obviously mixed child. The anger and resentment he feels is funnelled into a burgeoning fanaticism, clearly driven more by emotional need than by belief. I actually really appreciated this storyline, as it makes the reader sympathesize with the motivations (though not the actions) of such a person. And through the sympathesizing, you can begin to understand the underlying issues that need to be addressed.
This book flew by. I couldn’t believe how much I just wanted to know what happens next. I found the ending mostly satisfying; the ends were tied up and though I’m not sure what ending I wanted, the ending I got was believable. It’s actually fairly light reading, fast-paced, interesting but not incredibly complicated characters, a (for Americans) foreign and (for anyone not uber-wealthy) fantastic setting.
Though realistic about its setting, I didn’t feel like the book veered into Islamophobia – in fact, at times it addressed the negative impact 9/11-empowered Islamophobia had on the characters, especially the children. All of the characters were flawed but sympathetic (it’s told in third person limited, and every main character gets at least one chapter) and Abdullah is not painted as a monster because of his religion; he’s likeable and self-centered (and that’s attributed more to his power and wealth than anything else.) (let me know if you felt differently, of course!)
Overall, this felt more like a love story dealing with a multicultural couple than a book committed to exploring vast cultural differences. It made for a fun, fast, interesting read; a Harlequin novel all grown up and dealing with real people and cultures instead of caricatures.
So if you’re looking for an insightful read about the realities of being an American in a Islamic country, a slow and introspective read on an unusual marriage, or beautiful prose with a complex emotional landscape, alas, this book is probably not for you. But if you want something fun and easy to read, with an unusual setting and premise, that treats stereotypical romantic leads as real people with real problems, and does so without demonizing, I’d highly recommend The Ruins of Us.