In Robbins’ debut, an American student of Arabic gets lessons in love and loss when she goes to study in the Middle East.
Bea has come to an unnamed foreign city to read an ancient text “that made everyone who read it cry, it was that astonishing.” It tells the story of a Bedouin named Qais and his doomed love for the beautiful Leila, so when she hears a member of the family she is living with describe the blond policeman she glimpses in the station across the street from their apartment as “a real Qais,” Bea is intrigued. She has fallen in love with Arabic, we sense from allusions skillfully planted in the early chapters, because her life in America seems too safe and devoid of deep feeling. She has a crush on handsome Adel (the policeman) before she’s even met him, but when it becomes clear that he’s interested in the family’s maid, Nisrine—who has a husband and son back home in Indonesia—Bea passively accepts his choice. This is characteristic of her behavior throughout the novel, as Bea describes Madame; her husband, Baba; their three children; Nisrine; and Adel as though they were characters in an exotic play she was observing rather than participating in. She maintains this oddly distanced stance, preoccupied with abstract musings such as the number of words for love in Arabic, even as events grow menacing. The deteriorating political situation poses a particular threat to Baba, an anti-government activist who has already served 10 years in jail, and Adel must face the wrath of his powerful father, outraged by the discovery that he is in love with a foreign woman. Bea is wracked with guilt when she realizes that her American naiveté has contributed to the family’s woes, but in the time-honored fashion of privileged Westerners, she doesn’t seem able to do more than feel bad about it.
Oh-so-sensitive aperçus voiced in finely wrought language merely add to the general air of unreality in this well-intentioned but curiously unmoving novel.