When her husband Mason gets a job with Aramco, Oklahoman Gin McPhee moves from small-town life to a wider—and wilder—world of privilege, corruption and Middle Eastern geopolitics in the 1960s.
Raised by her strict Methodist grandfather after her parents died, Gin begins to define herself by an attitude of rebellion. One form this rebellion takes is to date Mason McPhee, the local Golden Boy, who quickly impregnates her in the back of a sedan. Although, much to their sorrow, the child dies, Mason does the honorable thing by marrying Gin and then, after briefly working on oil rigs in Oklahoma and Texas, accepts a position with Aramco in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia. There, while Mason is working two-week shifts out in the desert, Gin finds herself getting acquainted with bored and blasé women such as Candy Fullerton, wife of the district manager, and Ruthie Doucet, who warns Gin about “uppity” houseboys and orients her about what behaviors women are not allowed to engage in outside the compound within whose walls they live. The rules include women not driving, not visiting the suqs and most of all, not going outside the gates alone. True to her rebellious nature, Gin begins to change in the exotic environment, befriending her “houseboy,” a mature man named Yash, as well as Abdullah, a Bedouin with a degree in petroleum engineering. At first Mason is content with his new job—or at least content with the money that comes with it—but soon he uncovers evidence of a corrupt scheme in which both Americans and Saudis are implicated. Stressed by what to do with this information, he finds his relationship with Gin deteriorating and then becomes implicated in the murder of a young Arabian woman.
Barnes writes poetically and intensely about personal conflict and subtly informs the reader about continuing Western misunderstandings of Middle Eastern culture.