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Dear Thursday: GIRLS OF RIYADH by Rajaa Alsanea [Book 17 of 2010]

Guys, I have so many books in my hop right now: graphic novels, non-fiction, memoir, young adult, sci-fi, women’s fiction — all sorts of stuff. It’s been such a pleasure to read so much lately, and I can’t wait to share my thoughts on them. But til then let’s talk about what will probably be last non-American read of the summer — actually I’m listening to Mark Haddon’s SPOT OF BOTHER right now in the car, but it’s a little boring in an English PBS sort of way, so if it doesn’t pick up soon, I’m going to have to switch it out, even though I absolutely adored THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG AT MIDNIGHT. But enough about that other stuff, here are my thoughts on GIRLS OF RIYADH by Rajaa Alsanea.

Why I Decided To Read It: One of the things I’m going to miss most about Altadena, is the library. Their audiobook section is both magical and ever-changing, seemingly yielding an audiobook I want to listen every time I visit, no matter how many times I scour through it. This particular book had a great cover and an intriguing premise, so I picked it up, not knowing what to expect.

What It’s About: Sex in the City meets Saudi Arabia’s Velvet Class. It follows the educational, career, and love lives of four women from wealthy families.

What Makes It Different: Though this novel owes a lot to Sex in the City, there’s barely any kissing and sex is only alluded to. It was like reading a present-day Victorian novel with lots of unfamiliar fashion terms (to me) like abaya. Also, the book is written as a sort of email epistolary.

What I Loved: I’m a sucker for chick lit — set anywhere but here or England, and this was particularly fascinating just because one doesn’t usually associate Saudi Arabia with chick lit. I was glued from page one. It also broke a TON of writing rules, which I really appreciated by the end.

What I Didn’t Like: This novel might be set in Saudi Arabia, but it had the same problems that a lot of American chick lit has: vapid, over-privileged heroines, that are often hard to like, much less cheer on. But in this case, some of the girls were so thinly drawn. that it took me quite a few chapters to keep straight who was who. RIYADH is strong on story, but rather weak on character.

Writing Lessons Learned:

Tell don’t show. The narrator literally tells the entire story, and you know what, it’s not that bad. It also allows the author to cover quite a few years of territory without boring the reader. I’m so used to hearing “show don’t tell” that I sometimes forget that telling isn’t all that bad, if your story is super-interesting.

Self-awareness. RIYADH makes the interesting choice to address its incendiary nature and growing fame throughout the novel. It’s almost as if the writer knew this would be a bestseller and wrote accordingly. And somehow this does not make the reader hate her. I’m still trying to figure out how she pulled this off.

Don’t be afraid to be incendiary. I was especially curious about this writer’s process, because what she does here is so brave. The book was banned and denounced in her home country. I wondered what compelled her to write something that I’m sure she knew could receive such a reaction. But most of all, it reminded me that brave is always more compelling than safe.

To Whom Would I Recommend This Book: Women, All Americans, and Wealthy Girls The World Over.

Click on the cover pic to buy the book!