Book Review: The Ruins of Us

The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen    The Ruins of Us is the tale of a family. We meet them when the husband and wife have been married 27 years and are drifting apart. She has become too content in the routines of motherhood and running a household; he works too much and has taken an interest in a younger woman who is more intriguing and less encumbered. Their 14-year-old daughter is rebelling at school and writing about it in her blog. Their teenage son struggles with being teased, doesn’t know where he fits in and has recently started hanging around a bad crowd. And because they are so disconnected from each other, the parents are not communicating about the direction either child’s life is taking. Oh, and, by the way, the story is set in Saudi Arabia.

The wife, Rosalie, is an American who grew up in Saudi Arabia because of her father’s job, then moved to Texas as a young adult. “Arabia insinuated itself” in her though, and, much to the confusion of her friends and family, she always longed to return. Eventually she met and fell in love with a Saudi man living in Texas for business, Abdullah. Being a “modern” Arabian, Abdullah loved Rosalie for her spirited, bold American personality. They naively decided to marry and return to Saudi Arabia to start their life together, believing that love would conquer all. And it actually worked out for them for the most part for many years, with Rosalie dedicatedly engrossing herself in the culture and Abdullah maturing into his career and role as father and husband.

Abdullah comes to find himself with a dilemma though. His American wife’s commitment to him and immersion into his culture have morphed her from the spitfire American girl into a typical Saudi wife, which he despises. Instead of thanking her with his loyalty or working on their relationship, he escapes the problem by taking a fiery young Palestinian woman as his second wife. Rosalie is shocked to discover he has betrayed her with this legal but old fashioned and rare practice. Because it is Saudi Arabia, if she divorces him, she loses her children, her home and any money. If she stays, she must share the man she still deeply loves with another woman. Soon their family begins to unravel in a big, dramatic way while Abdullah is preoccupied with his new wife and Rosalie is agonizing over what to do with her life.

Readers will be able to relate to this story about family, parenting, love and marriage while also being treated to a captivating and beautifully descriptive glimpse into an exotic land and a secretive culture.

Parssinen tackles the issues of the difficulty of maintaining a long term relationship and the different ways in which we experience love — from intense new love to deep accepting love. We also see how a parent’s love for a child can be challenged. Themes about fitting in and what makes a place “home” run through the story on several levels, from where we live, our jobs and school, and within our families.

Through the teenage son, Faisal, and another American expatriate named Dan who works for Abdullah, we are given observations about values in America as well as glimpses of how others in the world view Americans. At the same time, we see the contradictions inherent in the Saudi culture of deep religious beliefs in a time of rapid growth and divisive world politics, which are fascinating and informative.

The story lets us see that love, belonging and hope for the future are essential needs in all of us. Parssinen is a capable storyteller with an evocative writing style.

The Ruins of Us is the first novel by Columbia author Keija Parssinen. It was recently announced as the 2013 “One READ” community-wide reading program selection by the Daniel Boone Regional Library.