Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Book Review: The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen

Most books about cross-cultural romances focus on the beginning of the relationship, that first, heady rush of longing and adoration that everyone recognizes – but that no couple can ever sustain – coupled with the shared desire to overcome societal obstacles to the liaison. Keija Parssinen’s The Ruins of Us gives us a glimpse of that fairytale 25 years down the road. And it confronts some really interesting questions about the nature of cross-cultural relationships, most importantly, “If we love someone because they are different from us, can love survive after that person makes our culture their own?”

Rosalie was a bartender/singer in Sugar Land, Texas, when she met Abdullah Baylani, a Saudi graduate student from a wealthy family. To Rosalie, whose happiest memories were of her ex-patriot childhood in the Middle East, “Abdi” represents an exotic life she longs to recapture. To Abdullah, she was a breath of fresh air, uninhibited and unconstrained by Saudi culture. But after a quarter century in Saudi Arabia, Rosalie now speaks (almost) fluent Arabic, and her once-red hair is hidden by a veil. She has learned to fit in to survive. But in Abdullah’s eyes, no matter how unfair it is, she’s lost a part of what made her so unique:

Recently she had watched the bright moon of Abdullah’s adoration waning, until it seemed to only reflect light from dying planets – a dull secondhand light. For years they had been a comfort to each other, but somewhere along the way their marriage had grown functional. Now she could only acknowledge that the devotion upon which she had built her world in the farthest province of a desolate land had dissolved under her feet. Kindle location 427

Rosie’s world becomes completely undone when she finds out that her husband has taken another, far younger wife – and kept it from her for more than two years. The revelation is further complicated by her teenage son Faisal’s increasing resentment of the “outsider” status that his “Ameeriki” mother forces on him. She turns to an old college friend, an ex-pat who still works for her husband, for support. But a relationship that would be totally understandable, even innocuous, in Texas, looks way different in the Kingdom.

I found Parssinen’s The Ruins of Us a thought-provoking look at the arc of an intercultural love affair. But the question the reader is left with at the end of the story goes way beyond culture: If you give up everything for someone else, what’s actually left of yourself?

This book is recommended for lovers of contemporary fiction, especially those who enjoy books situated in an international setting. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of family life in Saudi Arabia – Rosie and Abdullah’s blogging, rock and roll loving daughter Mariam gives us about as good a representation of the global teen culture as I’ve seen. It’s a quick read, and perhaps a bit predictable, but well-written and quite enjoyable.

Since Rosie is an immigrant in Saudi Arabia, this is my first book for Colleen's Immigrant Challenge 2012 at Books in the City. I am looking for non-US immigration stories this year, so if you have any ideas, let me know!

I read this book as part of a TLC book tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.

Books in the City


  1. I passed on this because I was afraid I'd hate all the characters -- and I was apprehensive the book was meant to be more salacious/shocking than anything. It sounds like I judged badly (not a surprise) -- I appreciate your comments about the sacrifices one makes and the impact it has.

    Lovely review, as usual. Nicely done!

  2. Thanks, Audra! I can totally understand why you would have thought it would be salacious looking at the PR materials, and I was worried about the same thing. But the second wife issue was really approached from a completely different perspective: looking at the issue of a marriage not being "enough," and there being a culturally acceptable way to remedy the problem. It was a surprisingly good read!

  3. I was dissatisfied with this book. For me it felt like the story began in the middle and I had more questions than answers.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

  4. @Suzanne -- I agree that the book had a very disjointed feel. I did like how the chapters focused on different characters, allowing us to see each of them from multiple perspectives. I was pretty ambivalent about the ending myself, but the rest of the book really worked for me.

  5. I love books that explore marriages and this one sounds fascinating! Great review.

  6. @Amused -- This is a marriage story from a completely different angle. It definitely gives you a lot to think about!

  7. Thanks for linking up the first review for Immigrant Stories!

    I think the question of what happens when you are drawn to each because you are different and then one person assimilates into the culture of the other is interesting. I read this blog called Modern Farmette written by an American woman who has moved to her Irish husband's homestead in rural Ireland. She has really become "one with the farm". I guess if you are drawn to each other as people and not because of your otherness your chances of weathering the assimilation are better.

  8. @Colleen -- I think that's true. There was a really sad element to the book, and I think it stems from that. I haven't seen the Modern Farmette blog, but I'm going to check it out!

  9. Wow, it certainly seems like Rosie gave up quite a bit to marry Abdi. I can't imagine doing something like that, but of course that's exactly why I like reading books like this one.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!


I absolutely love comments. Thanks for taking the time to share! Col