In the opening scene of Keija Parssinen’s novel, The Ruins of Us, we meet Rosalie, a red-headed Texan who has been living in Saudi Arabia for more than two decades. In these first pages, Rosalie discovers that her Saudi husband of 28 years has taken a second wife.
Later, we meet Rosalie’s husband Abdullah, a man who keeps secrets, the biggest of all: his second wife of two years lives in a villa down the street. Abdullah explains to a friend why he’s grown apart from his wife Rosalie: she has become “too Saudi” for him. If he wanted a Saudi wife, he would have married one.
At the center of the story is the Al-Baylani villa, grand and garish, located in a neighborhood called The Diamond Mile, where Rosalie and Abdullah host vast family meals on Friday. The home may look impressive, but inside is a family collapsing. At one point Rosalie says, “I’m disintegrating in that house.”
The solution to Rosalie’s problem is not simple. She has transformed herself to fit into life in Saudi Arabia—“The Kingdom,” as it’s called. Rosalie has so entangled herself into Saudi life that returning to the US presents its own challenges: she has no professional skills and she has even forgotten how to drive. Meanwhile, a Saudi divorce ultimately means a mother’s loss of her children.
And then there’s the teenage son Faisal, who has his own set of problems, less captivating than Rosalie’s, but still compelling. Faisal is a young man who copes with his bicultural background by rejecting one side of his identity (American) and embracing the other (Saudi). His confusion and self-hatred leads to new, bigger problems for himself and for his family.
The novel has four plot lines, some more convincing than others. My favorite chapters are about Rosalie. I would have been content if the book were entirely about her—this American who speaks fluent Arabic, who does daily yoga practice, who dons all the trappings of a Saudi wife but who slips into her Texas dialect whenever she’s upset.
The Ruins of Us is a story of not only one lovers’ triangle, but two—overlapping and intersecting, set against the dusty, grim backdrop of Saudi Arabia. The story revolves around the themes of cross-cultural marriage, expatriate life, betrayal, polygamy, religious extremism, midlife dissatisfaction, and cultural identity.
Many books have been set in Saudi featuring the same clichéd images, and Ruins of Us has some of that, too. Yes, it would be easy to criticize Ruins of Us in this regard, declaring this scene as unbelievable or that character as stereotypical. However, to do so would miss the point. This is a worthwhile novel, a new take on an old setting—with authentic details throughout. In the end, it’s a story about a cross-cultural family falling apart and trying to come back together.
Question: Have you read The Ruins of Us? What are your thoughts?