Why do people stay married? Or rather, how do people stay married? What series of compromises and alliances, conflicts and peace-makings, goes into a marriage that lasts for decades? Is there a point at which, eve n after 10, 20, 30 years, one or the other partner decides that enough is enough?
These questions are at the centre of Keija Parssinen's accomplished debut novel, The Ruins of Us, but with a twist that lifts the novel out of the standard "story of a marriage" category. The novel is set in Saudi Arabia and focuses on the marriage of Saudi-born American Rosalie March, and her handsome, powerful Saudi husband, Abdullah al-Baylani. After decades of making her peace with the tenets of Islam that govern Saudi society, Rosalie confronts a cultural difference that explodes her complacency. Her progressive, educated husband has taken a second wife - and kept the marriage a secret for two years, even though the woman lives just down the road from Rosalie, in a house that Abdi bought for her. The crisis in the al-Baylani marriage precipitates a crisis for the entire family, which, in turn, illustrates the fissures that run through contemporary Saudi culture.
Parssinen herself was born in Saudi Arabia, a third-generation expat, and lived on an Aramco compound until she was 12. Her experience helps her to avoid the clichés of the standard expat novel; she neither exoticises nor romanticises what it means to live "with a foot in two worlds".
What emerges from her portrait of the al-Baylani family and their friends is that they are all, literally or figuratively, expats - even Abdullah and the children, who were born in the kingdom and consider themselves Saudis. While the marriage and the society are not metaphors for one another, there are parallels: both are rife with contradictions that rumble below the surface, with occasional eruptions; both are predicated on the assumption that things won't - and shouldn't - change; both preclude female independence, which Rosalie had known about the Kingdom but hadn't realised about her marriage until it was almost too late.
Like the author, Rosalie was born in Saudi Arabia. Although her family moved back to Texas when she was 13, Rosalie develops a "slow fixation on the peninsula ... which she would never stop loving". Thus when she meets Abdullah at college in Austin, his nationality makes him more, rather than less, attractive. They marry, over the objections of both families, and return to the kingdom, after Abdi has earned a bachelor's degree and two master's degrees. To his friends and colleagues in Saudi Arabia, Abdullah seems to have meshed his US education with his Saudi values; they see him as a "great man ... progressive, educated, ahead of his time". Rosalie takes pride in his accomplishments, in their two children, and in the fact that even though their youthful passion had waned, the "love was there, the deep affection". She takes pride, too, in the fact that she speaks fluent Arabic and has accepted Abdullah's culture as her own.
In Abdullah's eyes, however, Rosalie seems to have adapted too completely. He tells his American friend Dan that over the years, Rosalie has become "a Saudi wife ... who uses 'summer' as a verb"; she has lost her independent American spirit. Dan asks the reasonable question: "Isn't that the idea? That after a while she'd adapt?" Abdullah explains that when a Saudi man goes to the trouble of marrying an American woman, the last thing he wants is for her to become a Saudi wife. He doesn't see that his behaviour has shaped Rosalie into precisely what he now disdains: he buys her expensive presents to excuse prolonged business trips, he insists that she defer to his family's wishes instead of her own.