When I’m not driving the kids around in my sweet minivan or trying to get “that smell” out of the carpet, I freelance for a local magazine called, Columbia Home. For the upcoming issue, the magazine asked if I would write a book review of The Ruins of Us , by Keija Parssinen. I enjoyed the book so much, I wanted to share my review here in case you, like me, love nothing more than plopping down on the couch and losing yourself in a good story.
The author, Keija Parssinen, is a lovely young woman of enormous talent and was gracious enough to give me a few minutes of her time for a short interview. I think you will find the story of her background and how it gave way to her book is nearly as interesting as the book itself. And if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe National Geographic. They just chose The Ruins of Us as their January book of the month.
Book Review: The Ruins of Us, Keija Parssinen. Harper Perennial.
Keija Parssinen’s captivating debut novel, The Ruins of Us, explores the universal themes of love, betrayal, and resiliency set against the backdrop of modern Saudi Arabian culture.
American-born Rosalie Al-Baylani lives a comfortable life in Saudi Arabia. She loves her husband, adores her children, and has grown accustomed to being a wife and a mother in the country she has been fascinated with since she was a girl. But Rosalie’s life is shattered when she learns that her husband of 25 years, the wealthy and powerful Saudi, Abdullah Al-Baylani, has taken a second wife and kept it secret from her for the past two years.
A heavy curtain of heartbreak, bitterness, and isolation falls over the Al-Baylani family as they struggle to make sense of their new reality. Taking a second wife is a man’s legal right in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but Rosalie always thought her Abdullah far too modern and far too devoted to do such a thing. While Rosalie is incapacitated from grief, and Abdullah from denial, the couple’s 16 year old son, Faisal, seeks comfort in a Muslim fundamentalist group with controversial, even violent, ideologies. This gripping story follows Rosalie as she struggles with fear, country, and conscience to make the heart-wrenching choices that will determine her fate and that of her family.
Parssinen, who grew up as a third generation expatriate in Saudi Arabia, deftly reveals the intricate, and at times messy, emotional lives of her characters, while providing an education on the culture and mores of contemporary Saudi life. Her rich, evocative prose is part love-letter to the land where she was born, and part critical study of its complexities. Through Parssinen’s skillful exposition, the reader becomes intimately acquainted with the character’s most profound and visceral desires, particularly in the case of Rosalie, Faisal, and the finely drawn Dan. However, as the story rises to its harrowing climax – and readers turn pages faster and faster -they might just find that, much like the characters themselves, they are unsure of what they want to happen next.
There is so much to love about this book. There is the intriguing story, the graceful language, the authentically flawed characters – but one fact stands out among the rest: the only thing black and white about this novel is the ink and paper upon which it’s printed. You will find yourself thinking about The Ruins of Us long after you put it down. So be sure to pick it up. (It comes out today and you can find it in your local bookstore or online at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, or
Author Q&A with Keija Parssinen
Q: You, like Rosalie, spent much of your childhood living in Saudi Arabia while your father worked for an oil company. How did your background influence this novel?
A: When I started writing the book, it was a way to travel back to Saudi in my mind. I left when my parents moved us back to the US when I was 12. When you leave Saudi Arabia, they take your visa and you are not allowed to go back. So, in a way, it’s really like your home is taken away from you, physically anyway. I think I felt I was being robed of memories. But in writing the book, I did a ton of research and in 2008 since my Dad was living there again, I was allowed to travel back. I stayed with Saudi friends in Khobar and got to experience life with Saudi family and really study the city – what it looked like, the colors, the sound of the traffic. It was fantastic.
Q: What were you hoping readers would gain from reading this book?
A: I hope they enjoy it, first and foremost. But also, I think the book is an honest look at how cultures clash and why. At its heart, I hope it does convey my belief that the human emotional makeup is universal. Our cultural elements may influence and get in the way of our relationships, but we all experience the same emotions regardless of where we come from.
Q: Faisal, Rosalie and Abdullah’s teenage son, becomes involved in a jihadist group. How did you decide to write this plotline into the story of this family?
A: The reality is I couldn’t write about Saudi Arabia in 2005 (when I began writing the book) without addressing the radical mindset of some Saudis. The anger and confusion of 9/11 was still very fresh in my mind, and I was trying to puzzle through why someone would think that way. I learned from Sam Chang, the director of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, that the purpose of fiction is to ask, not answer, questions. So in writing this book I was asking, ‘How would a group of young men who believe America is occupying and in some cases ruining their country act and react in certain situations? And also, ‘What if a man takes a second wife? Is it OK? Is it ever justifiable?’ I read a lot of materials by Arab writers and Saudi writers offering opinions. I learned a lot. In some ways, it destroyed the warm-fuzzy memories I had from my childhood. But I gained so much insight as well.
Keija Parssinen 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.