Why do people stay married? Or rather, how do people stay married? What series of compromises and alliances, conflicts and peace-makings, goes into a marriage that lasts for decades? Is there a point at which, eve n after 10, 20, 30 years, one or the other partner decides that enough is enough?
These questions are at the centre of Keija Parssinen's accomplished debut novel, The Ruins of Us, but with a twist that lifts the novel out of the standard "story of a marriage" category. The novel is set in Saudi Arabia and focuses on the marriage of Saudi-born American Rosalie March, and her handsome, powerful Saudi husband, Abdullah al-Baylani. After decades of making her peace with the tenets of Islam that govern Saudi society, Rosalie confronts a cultural difference that explodes her complacency. Her progressive, educated husband has taken a second wife - and kept the marriage a secret for two years, even though the woman lives just down the road from Rosalie, in a house that Abdi bought for her. The crisis in the al-Baylani marriage precipitates a crisis for the entire family, which, in turn, illustrates the fissures that run through contemporary Saudi culture.
Parssinen herself was born in Saudi Arabia, a third-generation expat, and lived on an Aramco compound until she was 12. Her experience helps her to avoid the clichés of the standard expat novel; she neither exoticises nor romanticises what it means to live "with a foot in two worlds".
What emerges from her portrait of the al-Baylani family and their friends is that they are all, literally or figuratively, expats - even Abdullah and the children, who were born in the kingdom and consider themselves Saudis. While the marriage and the society are not metaphors for one another, there are parallels: both are rife with contradictions that rumble below the surface, with occasional eruptions; both are predicated on the assumption that things won't - and shouldn't - change; both preclude female independence, which Rosalie had known about the Kingdom but hadn't realised about her marriage until it was almost too late.
Like the author, Rosalie was born in Saudi Arabia. Although her family moved back to Texas when she was 13, Rosalie develops a "slow fixation on the peninsula ... which she would never stop loving". Thus when she meets Abdullah at college in Austin, his nationality makes him more, rather than less, attractive. They marry, over the objections of both families, and return to the kingdom, after Abdi has earned a bachelor's degree and two master's degrees. To his friends and colleagues in Saudi Arabia, Abdullah seems to have meshed his US education with his Saudi values; they see him as a "great man ... progressive, educated, ahead of his time". Rosalie takes pride in his accomplishments, in their two children, and in the fact that even though their youthful passion had waned, the "love was there, the deep affection". She takes pride, too, in the fact that she speaks fluent Arabic and has accepted Abdullah's culture as her own.
In Abdullah's eyes, however, Rosalie seems to have adapted too completely. He tells his American friend Dan that over the years, Rosalie has become "a Saudi wife ... who uses 'summer' as a verb"; she has lost her independent American spirit. Dan asks the reasonable question: "Isn't that the idea? That after a while she'd adapt?" Abdullah explains that when a Saudi man goes to the trouble of marrying an American woman, the last thing he wants is for her to become a Saudi wife. He doesn't see that his behaviour has shaped Rosalie into precisely what he now disdains: he buys her expensive presents to excuse prolonged business trips, he insists that she defer to his family's wishes instead of her own.
In her fury at his second marriage, however, Rosalie reveals that she is not a proper Saudi wife. A good Saudi wife would accept the second marriage without protest, but Rosalie exiles Abdi from their bedroom. He spends more and more time with his second wife, Isra, herself an expat from Palestine, and is thus further estranged from his first family.
As Rosalie negotiates what she sees as the ruins of her marriage, she feels trapped: she wants to kill her husband for his betrayal but she can't imagine living without him. By the same token, she despises the kingdom for licensing men to legitimise their mid-life restlessness, but she can't imagine living anywhere else. She feels displaced from the country of her marriage and the country that she has come to call home; she needs to relearn what it means to be "a single body, complete in itself".
Abdi and Rosalie are so caught up in their own marital crisis that they don't notice that their own children also feel rootless and displaced. Neither 16-year old Faisal nor 14-year old Mariam feel at home in the country where they were born, albeit for very different reasons.
Self-conscious about his Amreeki mother, Faisal dreams about marrying an Arab girl and having children who will not be "halfway". Following the lead of an older friend, Faisal joins a Quaran study group led by a charismatic sheikh, whose fiery words have drawn the negative attention of the Saudi ruling family. Buoyed up by his newfound religious fervor, Faisal uses verses from the Quaran to chastise both his parents and accuses his sister of being ashamed of her culture because she calls her black abaya a "garbage bag".
Mariam regularly gets in trouble at school for wearing abayas she made herself in shades of deep blue, eggplant and dark red. She writes a blog called Confessions of a Saudi Teen, which already has 400 followers and tells her conservative brother: "I just want to be myself, which is impossible here." Her desire seems utterly typical of a western teenager, but coming from the mouth of a teenaged Saudi girl, it is a dangerous sentiment.
The novel takes a dramatic turn when the sheikh with whom Faisal had been studying is arrested, and Faisal and his friend hatch a plan to get him released. What they do seems, at first, utterly outrageous. But when we consider their actions in light of what other fervent fundamentalists have done in the name of religion, the boys' actions seem eminently believable. In the hands of a less gifted novelist, the final pages of the novel, which read almost like an adventure story, would seem like an uneasy grafting of genres. But because Faisal remains a sympathetic character despite his violent behavior, we get caught up in the action without losing sight of the family relationships at stake.
The brunt of Parssinen's critique of Saudi culture rests in the difficulties facing the al-Baylani children, who have little or no choice about their future as long as they remain in the kingdom. Abdullah worries about both his children, "each poised at the opposite end of the revolution", and each of whom could be seen as threats to the Saudi ruling family.
The novel offers no easy answers for the dilemmas facing Rosalie and her family. Through the figure of Mariam, the abaya-wearing rebel, however, Parssinen suggests that things might be different for future generations. It is Mariam's blog that saves her brother from himself; Mariam who argues for women's rights; Mariam who refuses to be bullied. It may be the Mariams of the kingdom, with their feet in two worlds, who are Saudi Arabia's best hope for peaceful change.
Parssinen's novel, while clearly the work of a gifted storyteller, is not without missteps.
Abdullah's friend Dan never fully coheres as a character; the final conversation between Faisal and his fundamentalist friend feels a bit too tidy, too coincidental, to ring true. On the whole, though, The Ruins of Us is a novel that does two things very well: it is both a "good read" and a thought-provoking exploration of a society that to many of us remains unimaginable other than through the lens of stereotype and misinformation.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi. She blogs at www.mannahattamamma.com