“The Ruins of Us,” Keija Parssinen’s debut novel, echoes back to her childhood in Saudi Arabia. A third generation expatriate, Parssinen’s heroine, Rosalie, channels the author’s obvious love of her youthful home, and demonstrates a serious understanding of a culture which seems exotic at best, and crazy at worst, to most of her American audience. Parssinen’s success in this novel is making the setting accessible, which is important because of how it defines the characters who make it their home.
Rosalie, a 40-something wife and mother of two, begins “The Ruins of Us” by telling the reader that she has it all: a devoted husband, a nearly grown up son and daughter, fantastic wealth and a home in the beautiful, unforgiving desert she loves. That is, until she discovers that two years ago, her husband, Abdullah, took a second wife and wants them all to be a happy, traditional family together.
Rosalie’s desperate search for an escape from the half-life she is revealed to be living takes up much of the beginning of the novel. Abdullah’s polygamy is legal in Saudi Arabia, and divorce, though possible, will take away Rosalie’s children and life as she knew it for nearly 30 years. An expatriate college dropout without any particular talents or money, Rosalie finds herself with her back to a wall, yet she cannot help but love her husband and mourn the loss of their life together.
Aside from Rosalie’s struggle with herself, Abdullah is forced to take a look at his flailing family: his fiery first wife, whose life he has upended; his independent daughter, Mariam, hoping to change her world for the better with feminist journalism; his radically devout son, Faisal, who wants to put things back to the way they were on the Arab peninsula before Westernization; and the promise of a new life with his second wife, who remains mostly a blank throughout the novel. Rosalie and Abdullah’s crisis is observed by their old college friend, Dan, who went through a divorce recently, and despite missing his old life, cannot help but nurse a longtime crush on the spirited Rosalie.
Everything comes to a head in an escape attempt, Big Brother-type government intervention and a kidnapping. “The Ruins of Us” does not necessarily end in a way that will satisfy all audiences, but the unbiased reader will agree that the ending serves the book’s purpose well. Though slow to start, the novel definitely picks up speed and interest as it progresses, as likeable characters take shape and dramas unfold. Most importantly, the backdrop of exotic Saudi Arabia manages to keep everyone on their toes.