Gates (Private Lines, 2014, etc.) received her master’s degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies from Thunderbird School of Global Management and lived for five years in Saudi Arabia; she appears to draw on both her academic and personal experiences in the atmospheric, evocative descriptions that enliven this fictional account of a young American ESL teacher abroad. Leaving behind a life of relative aimlessness and a pile of student loan debt, 24-year-old Arden Armstrong accepts a one-year contract teaching English to female college students in Saudi Arabia. Although her motivations were initially adventure and money, she soon finds herself increasingly invested in her students and in her host culture. Despite her fascination with the country, though, she can’t keep herself from agitating for some Western-style reforms, especially with regard to women’s academic achievements. And when a chance meeting with the attractive archaeologist Dr. Faisal Al Ansary turns into multiple chance meetings, and an unexpected connection with one of her students, Arden finds that even the repressive religious and legal strictures can’t keep her from pursuing her desire. But this dangerous relationship turns out to have risks far beyond what she had imagined, and Arden stands to lose everything. Gates’ book overcomes a somewhat slow start to build in intensity toward a satisfying, emotionally resonant conclusion. Along the way, deft pacing and a number of unexpected but credible plot twists will keep readers interested. Dialogue is generally fresh and authentic, main characters are well-developed, and even minor characters have unique personalities skillfully sketched out. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia comes alive as well, with Gates’ poignant depictions providing a haunting backdrop for the fast-paced action. Overall, this complex, enjoyable read will leave readers hoping for more from this talented new writer.
Romance, geopolitical instability and coming-of-age angst in a well-crafted tale.