**spoiler alert** Second in book in the author's Princess trilogy. It's supposedly based on the true life experiences of a Saudi Arabian princess who...more**spoiler alert** Second in book in the author's Princess trilogy. It's supposedly based on the true life experiences of a Saudi Arabian princess who goes by the name Sultana. Although I'm always skeptical about books "based on a true story," I can't always help but think that even if the main character didn't really go through everything herself, it's a good bet that someone she knew did, and that makes it chilling enough.
This book focuses on Sultana's children, her only son and two daughters. She is incredibly caring toward them all, and she pays special attention to her son to ensure that he does not treat his female relatives and future wives with anything less than courtesy and respect. The result is a boy of great integrity who is horrified at his mother's stories of genital mutilation, who steals money from his family safe only to donate it to the poor, and who risks his name and station to unite two lovers whose families are enemies. I find her son to be an incredibly uplifting character, because he proves that the cycle of violence does not have to continue.
Sultana's daughters are polar opposites of one another. The eldest is loud and enthusiastic, but becomes mentally unstable in her early years due to the incredible repression she sees around her. She even firsts with lesbianism for a time. After intense counseling, she returns to her normal self and becomes what appears to be almost a mini clone of Sultana herself. She is outspoken about her desires and hopes to fight for a better future for women. Her youngest daughter begins life as a quiet and meek girl who loves animals more than people and begins to overrun their palace with stray animals. After a pilgrimage to Mecca, however, she becomes a religious zealot who advocates traditional positions for men and women and openly advises her family when they are sinning. Sultana worries that she has somehow raised a girl who will grow up to undo all the work she has done for women's rights.
The difference between her children is at the cornerstone of the novel, and I think her small family truly represents the problems for Saudi women today. Sultana herself has a relative good life. She has a husband who loves who and who will not take another wife (though most men of his station take four), a son who will be good to his wife and assist others in their troubles, and two daughters who will (in their own ways) make a mark on Saudi society. Ironically, however, it is her son who pushes for equality and women's rights while one of her daughters makes a strong case for traditionalism. This shows that things will probably never fully change while so many women accept their fate and even believe strongly in it.
These books are not always easy reads for me, mainly because I can get squeamish easily. A full chapter was devoted to the practice of female circumcision, which is still practices in varying degrees today, especially in the country. Sex crimes are also heavily discussed, mainly because this is Sultana's main focus. A friend of her brother, for example, raped an unconscious women in a hospital, and when she was discovered to be pregnant, he paid off the doctor to not reveal his name. Her youngest sister suffered from anal rape by her husband, and the area was torn open and could no longer be used. A hole had to be cut in her side for waste to be removed. In response, her husband took another wife so he would never have to be near such ugliness again. Her sister did not protest, however, because if she sought a divorce, she would lose her children, and she was willing to suffer anything to be with them. Foreign women sell their young children as sex slaves, and men ridicule them for being whores yet don't hesitate to sleep with them.
The list goes on and on, but the books generally end on a positive note, with Sultana hoping that her actions have made the world at least a sightly better place for all women. I will be interested to see how the third book turns out.(less)