A hard-driving designer seeks acclaim by competing to develop a Middle Eastern museum only to discover that the project’s real value is different from what she imagined.
Grinell (Appetite, 2016, etc.) paints a detailed portrait of ambitious museum developer Joanna Dunhill and her business partner and husband, Everett Dana, in this novel. If their company gets the contract to create a Saudi Arabian children’s museum, Jo thinks fame and success will be hers. Ev, who wants to spend his time cloistered in his studio designing displays, is not so sure seeking contractual relationships with the Saudis is such a great idea. Ev finds the Saudis devious and their obscure ethos quite disturbing. Jo and Ev’s business negotiations provide the framework for a story whose real center is the social and ethical issues, cultural conflicts, and oddities of Saudi life that control and censor the populace, especially women. The tale contrasts Saudi customs with American social mores, deftly drawing out tensions that not only involve Jo and Ev, but also Jo’s haphazard sister, Diane, and her young assistant, Becca. Jo wants to mentor Becca, who has a crush on Ev. And while Jo disparages Ev’s childishness, his imagination is the key to their success because he thinks like a kid. “Sometimes she thought him incapable of reasoning like an adult,” Jo muses. “But the flip side, his ability to sense the world as it appeared to children, earned their living.” Lucidly written, the author’s disclosures about her characters’ inner lives provide rich turf for this story. The players’ repeated trips to Saudi Arabia and their contract talks spotlight the deep cultural divides that supply a focus for the engaging tale. Jo’s deepening relationship with Saudi translator Myriam shows that supporting women’s rights in Saudi Arabia means taking baby steps, a strategy that challenges Jo’s definition of feminism.
A contrast between Saudi and American ways that sets the stage for an engrossing exploration of personal and political issues.