The realities of life in the gilded cage for contemporary Arab women--in the first US publication from Lebanese-born writer al- Shaykh. Though imbued with an urgent sense of lives blighted and talents wasted, al-Shaykh--in telling her four women protagonists' stories--makes her points by accumulating illustrative detail rather than launching a polemic. In a nameless Middle Eastern city, four friends struggle to make full lives in a society where women cannot drive a car, walk in the streets unveiled, and, if they do have jobs, must work in segregated areas. It's also a society where sex, because of all the constraints, becomes an unhealthy obsession. Only one of the women, Suzanne, a Texan there with her husband on assignment, enjoys the Middle Eastern way of life. As a Westerner, she has more freedom but, more importantly, with her marriage failing--she suspects her husband is gay--she enjoys the attention of the men attracted by her novelty. Suha, a well- educated Lebanese woman, came with her husband to escape the war- -but finding the stifling boredom worse than any bombing, and ashamed of a lesbian relationship with wealthy Nur, she returns to Beirut. Nur, the daughter of a wealthy Bedouin, is the quintessential bored rich woman who seeks sensation at the expense of her marriage to a Western-educated, would-be reformer. And Tamr, whose Turkish mother had been sent to a sheik's harem as a young girl and was married herself at 12, is encouraged by Suha to divorce and then, with the obligatory permission from her closest male relative, start a small, and of necessity women's-only, business. An eloquent and subtle plea for liberalization, as well as an evocative description of a society torn between tradition and the West. A promising debut.