The Basics: Girls of Riyadh, Rajaa Alsanea, 2007, 304 pages, hardcover
How I found it: I believe it was on a list of new and noteworthy fiction at my local public library.
What's it about?: This novel tells the story of four female friends coming of age, attending university, and attempting to find love in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The woman are part of Riyadh's 'velvet class' and live privileged lives. Although they live in a Muslim country, the girls have progressive ideas of love, dating and the role of women in society. However, for the most part, these girls still strive to live with their religion as their guide. This book is a bit like a watered-down Muslim Sex in the City: four friends who are quite different, living 'liberated' lives, dating various men, including one man who is the Saudi equivalent of "Mr. Big". The book was originally written in Arabic, but obviously, I read the English translation.
Did I like it?: This book is in no way 'literature', however it is a good pulpy read. I enjoyed reading it and actually learned a lot about the lives of women living under Muslim law (although I guess I only learned about the lives of rich women). The women themselves are quite likable, although to me their lives seem a bit far fetched and they seem a bit spoiled. It's a bit like the premise of Gossip Girl - that we want to read about the rich privileged people we wish we could be. The idea of attempting to date in a country that has religious police, where women must keep their faces partially hidden, and where dating takes place in secret, and only the phone, was completely foreign to me, and actually quite fascinating. Apparently this book was a bit controversial in the Middle East for its frank discussions of sex and dating, and the fact that its author is a 25 year old female university student. It was even banned in Saudi Arabia and that seems to add to its allure.
Will you like it?: If you liked Sex in the City, you'll like this book. It's a slightly more intelligent beach book and might actually teach you things about the lives of women in the Muslim world that you won't hear on North American television. However, don't expect great literature or any deep thoughts about politics or other hard topics, as this book is pure fluff, and good fluff at that.
But don't take my word for it: The usual publisher-approved blurbs from Amazon, a review from the website Arab View, another review from Homan, Iran's gay and lesbian resource site, one from the UK's Independent, an article from Forbes (cheekily entitled "Saudi Girls Gone Wild") and a summary from the author's web page.