A Saudi patriarch’s decision to take a second wife unsettles more than just his American-raised spouse.
Rosalie, the heroine of Parssinen’s debut novel, has spent more than two decades living in Saudi Arabia, and she’s resigned herself to the country’s sexist constraints: the headscarves she must wear, the cars she’s not allowed to drive, the subservience she must project to her husband, Abdullah, at least in public. But when she discovers that Abdullah has had a second wife for two years, her combative Texas roots reemerge, and she begins voicing her anger and pondering an escape. Guiding her in that direction is Dan, an American-born former boyfriend of hers and an employee of Abdullah. But Rosalie can’t easily get away when her two teenaged children require attention. Her daughter, Mariam, is increasingly Westernized, writing a blog that risks angering the authorities, while her son, Faisal, is enchanted by radical Islam and prone to increasingly vehement anti-American rhetoric. The pieces are a little too neatly arranged on the plot’s chessboard, and the novel’s climactic chapters, which involve a kidnapping, voice familiar messages about zealotry and cross-cultural understanding. But Parsinnen convincingly inhabits the shifting moods of her characters; writing in close third person, she follows Dan, Abdullah, Rosalie and the children (though, interestingly, Abdullah’s second wife remains largely a blank). Parsinnen also exposes plenty about life in Saudi Arabia, from the subtle politicking among the ruling emirs to the punishing desert heat to the tactics of girl-chasing boys at the shopping malls. Throughout, her prose is artful without being showy, forced, or melodramatic, and her knowledge of Saudi culture informs the story, instead of making this a stock infidelity tale with some exotic touches.
A fine debut that uses its knowledge of both Saudi Arabia and psychology to transcend some overly schematic character arrangements.