Jenny's Reviews > The Ruins of Us

The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen
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Jan 22, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: read-in-2012

Sooo... I started reading this a while ago and I initially put it down because I had some problems with some parts of the story (I'll explain in a bit) and I really did not like the characters. That was maybe 50 pages or so in, and I considered just writing my review based on what I felt at that moment. But because of my reading slump issues from last year, and really wanting to thoroughly fulfill my obligations to TLC Book Tours, I decided to keep reading and just see if I changed my mind. But I was skeptical. And a little cynical.

And then I ended up pretty much enjoying this read. That teaches me! I'm going to include some quotes from the book because it is sort of vital to the points I want to make, but keep in mind I am quoting from an advanced copy so there might possibly be some slight changes.

The Ruins of Us tells the story of the Baylani family. American, Rosalie, and Saudi Arabian Abdullah have been married for 25 years. They have two teenagers, Faisal and Mariam. The story begins when Rosalie finds out her husband has taken a second wife and has hidden this fact from Rosalie. Although this is not uncommon to their culture, she is surprised because Abdullah was always different. Faisal is a confused teenaged boy who struggles with his bi-racial identity, sometimes resenting his mother for her causing him to not belong. He overcompensates by devoting himself to a political group and emphasizing his religious beliefs. And Mariam is a feministic teen who wants to grow up to be a journalist. She maintains a blog where she discusses issues in Saudi Arabia. There is also one other character whose perspective we hear from, Dan Coleman, who is an American friend of the family. The Ruins of Us is a portrait of the struggling marriage and how this affects the family; it's about Faisal struggling to fit in to his environment; and it's about how all these issues culminate with dangerous consequences

Although I don't feel quite as strongly about it now, I did not initially like this book because I just didn't think the characters were realistic or consistent. I couldn't figure the characters out at all. For instance, when Rosalie finds out about the second wife. Is she mad, upset, etc.? Yes. But there just didn't seem to be a gravity to it. I get that it's not totally uncommon to the culture, but for as progressive as the characters were described, it didn't make sense to me. (Honestly, it still doesn't... I think the character of Abdullah was the most inconsistent for me.) Like here, he's complaining that his wife has acclimated to the Saudi culture:

"If you're a Saudi man and you marry an American woman, the last thing you want is for her to become a Saudi wife. Otherwise, why would you go through all the trouble with the family?" (p. 41)

So, you become a "Saudi man" and marry a second wife? That seems inconsistent to me. There was another part where he was telling his friend about a girl who was flirting with him and expected him to reciprocate. The friend basically points out that well yeah, you have a reputation. And Abdullah acts all confused and says "I'm a married man." Um, hello, that didn't stop you from finding a whole new wife... And the reasons Abdullah justifies marrying a second wife are so superficial that it was hard for me to take it seriously. Yes, he felt he and his (first) wife had become distant, etc. but marrying another person? At least he acknowledged it:

He saw that now, acknowledged that he had not wanted to deal properly with the distance opening up between him and Rosalie and so had fallen back on the laws of the tribe to avoid it. (p. 104)

But more for inconsistency... in one part Abdullah gets mad at his son, and they get in a little tiff followed by this response.

"Don't speak to me like that, or you can be certain that you won't be going to any university, here or in America. I will not tolerate this kind of behavior from my son." (p. 113)

I wonder if I missed something because not only did this statement elicit confusion from me, but was the topic of university an issue? I don't know. But then, a couple pages later, Abdullah is defending his son to his wife, basically saying ah, he's just being a kid.

Then some parts were just strange...

Rosie's taste for the dramatic raised her arguments with Abdullah to a form of high art, both of them gesturing wildly. Sometimes, Abdullah would just spank her, in utter seriousness, right in front of everyone, and then they would collapse all over each other with laughter. (p. 38)

I really disliked Abdullah's character. This following passage was the clincher for me. (Abdullah thinking about Rosalie.)

Her stubbornness was starting to wear on him and a strange coldness had filled him. If that was how she wanted to behave, then he would let her. He would be patient. He had all the time in the world because he had love available to him. It was she who would grow lonely night after night in an empty bed. (p. 118)

I did find a passage I liked, though, since much of this book is about marriage and parenting:

There should be some sort of training before you got yourself mixed up in such things -- marriages and divorces and children and second marriages. He had trained for every other part of his life, football as a youth and then business and economics as an adult. Even driving required training. Yet when you married, what advice did people give? Only congratulations, and what good does that do anyone? (p. 90)

I did find, though, that I became invested in the characters. I never did grow to like any of them that much except for Mariam. (Okay, Dan grew on me too). But then the last third of the book the plot totally picked up and I devoured the book to find out what would happen. It was sort of funny because this book had some similarities to the last book I read. They were both about Muslim teen boys who are confused and take their beliefs too far.

I did think it was interesting to learn about Rosalie and her motivations for living in Saudi Arabia. She had spent time there as a child (like the author...) and had idealized it as she grew up so that once she was an adult, she wanted to live there. Yet, she was always the outsider because of her looks but also because of her beliefs. A lot of this book is about her difficulty straddling the cultural divide. I felt like I could relate to her in some of these ways.

So to conclude, I had difficult in the beginning but I'm glad I decided to read the rest. I didn't care for the characters most of the time, but I did enjoy the story. And I actually think this book would be a great read for book clubs, because there are a lot of topics that could be discussed. I have to say that I appreciated The Ruins of Us for making me think so much whether it was about the story, the characters, or the issues they all dealt with.

Taken from my blog at
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Reading Progress

07/18 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Adrienna You are not alone. I am midway with the novel and I didn't care for the characters either; some inconsistencies for me as well. But I am starting to gather more about Dan. Mariam was easy to be likeable even though she doesn't have much of a voice in the novel to me. I am waiting to see more of Isra too...second wife.

Alex Although I find you're points valid, I think the reason you might be finding it hard to relate or comprehend some of the things happening with the characters (especially Abdullah) if you have not lived in the Middle East. The author grew up in Saudi, so I found she was really on par with the characters (although they were at times a little dramatised). If I hadn't lived in the Middle East myself, I would have found it very had to get myself into this book, as you said you had. But, living here and having friends from this culture makes if much easier to understand and you'd be surprised just how close Abdullah's character is to actual local men here... They're in between the generations one clinging to hold onto their traditions and customs and the other looking to move forward and increase their opportunities to be sustainable participants in a world that is becoming increasingly revolved around the corporate world.
I agree with your frustration with Abdullah's constant self contradictions. It hang home for me and actually made mr feel angry!

Adrienna ok...

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