Soueif, born in Egypt and living in Britain, makes her American debut with a novel that details a young Egyptian woman's exasperatingly drawn-out journey to autonomy amidst the turmoil of contemporary Middle East politics. Opening the story with the cancer operation on her beloved uncle Hamid in London in 1979, protagonist Asya drops a few names, hints at old griefs, then returns to 1967 Cairo. The Arab-Israeli war has just begun--an event that's much debated in the adolescent Asya's family, since both her father and uncle Hamid were once imprisoned for their politics. Political quotes abound and, though adding authenticity, are heavy-handed reminders not only that Asya holds passive sympathies for Egyptian nationalism and the PLO, but that this is a serious novel with admirably serious themes--like the role of women in Islamic society, and the enduring ties to family and tradition. Asya, the daughter of two professors, has more freedom than her contemporaries, but even her educated parents insist on a long formal courtship before she can marry handsome Saif Madi--a four-year delay that, Asya claims, ruins their sex life. Saif is a generous but manipulative cipher, and the couple have zip communication, yet Asya insists she loves him. Meanwhile, she goes to graduate school; attends a bleak northern British university where she has impulsively decided to do her Ph.D.; and Saif makes his infrequent visits. Time will pass slowly as her marriage slowly disintegrates; her dissertation is slowly completed; and Asya slowly decides to end her affair with uncouth Gerald. But Asya is also slowly growing: home in Cairo, with a doctorate but no Saif, she realizes she's ``back into the sunlight still in complete possession of herself.'' Within this mass of often ill-assorted detail--every note for the dissertation seems to be included--lurks a story that's worth telling, but finding it is not always easy.