The Girls of Riyadh

By Signe

A couple of weeks ago I found myself at the bookstore. I’m often there, although I don’t always buy something I always browse around, look at frontpages and read blurbs. Sometimes I put the book back on its shelf, and other times I simply have to buy it. This was the case of Rajaa al-Sanea’s, “The Girls of Riyadh” (2007). My interest in this book began because it seemed like a forbidden glimpse into a world that I know nothing of, and I found that to be almost addictive, and I just had to turn another page (don’t you love that feeling as well?)

The book is about four Saudi girls. However, the form of the book suggests that the reader is not merely reading a story, but rather that this story is real. One unnamed narrator, starts an e-mail service in which she depicts the everyday life and struggles of her four friends. She talks about university, parents, clothes and men, but instead of falling victim to the ever-famous stereotypical female stories (we all now them), the writer manages to tell truly honest stories about life. I think what is important to emphasise here is that these stories are apparent in all societies, and I know that I can certainly identify myself with these women, but it’s also crucial to understand that we, and especially being western females, must not fall victims of universalism. Thus, the fours girls’ stories are very much part of Saudi society, and so they cannot be directly translated to a more western idea or notion.

al-Sanea also translated the book originally published in Arabic to English, which gives an indication of just how important it is to translate stories correctly. I also have a vested interest in this subject because I’m writing my bachelor thesis on Orientalism, and so for me personally, the book opened my eyes in quite different ways, I suppose. Have you guys ever read something for fun, and then realised how it could be applied in social theories? I love when that happens!

My favourite part of the book was the description of sex and relationships (and for the naughty, I don’t mean actual descriptions of sexual acts–I find that they’re often hard to translate on paper …). First of all, al-Sanea describes how because of technology, men almost track down women to get their phone numbers and how chatrooms are blooming, and so, for the Saudi girls it’s not only important to find a man, but it’s also important to flirt and to talk. It’s interesting how these technologies become such a huge part of finding a partner, and although everybody does it, it’s still presented as a secretive thing. As these relationships emerge, it’s apparent that many of the girls marry young, but none of them are particularly happy and they all struggle in these re-defined relationships. Arguably, because it’s so easy to pose as another through mediums of communication rather than meeting people in real life, and because of the structure of the society the latter is not an option unless there’s a clear intention of marriage. So, I find that al-Sanea does something rather amazing, as she touches upon these relationships and how they’re formed and how they turn out, as a response to the sex segregation. I also found the idea of sex interesting. One character (I will not name her) legally marries a man (there’s a tradition for a legal marriage, a period of waiting and then the official wedding) and has sex with him because she wants to and she can’t stop, and afterwards the ‘husband’ leaves her, divorces her, but more importantly enables her to overcome this divorce-taboo. Thus, she emerges as an incredibly strong woman, and I think this is a pattern that we can all identify with on one level or another as readers, and so, I found the following quote to be especially poignant:

“Apparently, all men were the same. It was like God had given them different faces just so that women would be able to tell them apart.”

* * * *

I give this book a four out of five stars. I loved the format, the stories, the mysteries, the relationships, the travels, the glimpse of an unknown world, but more importantly, I loved the characters and how they were described each with their own little flaws and characteristics, which made the book colourful and come alive in a different way than I’ve experienced before.

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Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Written by Dzenana

Cath and her twin sister Wren are starting their freshman year of college. The problem is Wren has reached that stage in her life where she wants independence, adventure and not to be part of a duo so Cath is pretty much alone. Well, not totally alone though. From Goodreads: “She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words… And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

I’m not entire sure where to begin… So let’s begin with the cover! I mean, come on! I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I’ll admit that the purchase of this book was mainly based on the simple, cute and gorgeous greenish cover.

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I loved the color of the cover, the color of the title and especially the drawn characters. This cover just screamed “fun light read!” with its pastel coloring.

However, do not let the pastels fool you! Yes, this is a fun, light and quick read, but it’s also really well balanced. It has a lightness to it while dealing with real life problems and realistic characters that are absolutely relatable. One the one hand we have a snarky, door banging roommate, gay fanfiction, a hubba-hubba super friendly guy and on the other hand we have social anxiety, abandonment and manic depression. The fact that this novel can still be considered a light and fun read is a feat in itself. The balance of being light and fun while dealing with serious issues is also reflected in the way it has drama in it without becoming downright dramatic. I really liked Cath’s character development and I found it really interesting to see her open up despite her social anxiety and to learn to deal with being herself in a place; to see the process of her opening up to new people (Levi and Reagan), new situations (her writing assignment) and simply learning to accept herself and push beyond her (rather limited) limits.

 

Just to mention a few of my favorite passages and parts:

“Walking to class, Cath couldn’t shake the feeling that she was pretending to be a college student in a coming-of-age movie.”

This was the part that really drew me in! It was just SO relatable – I mean, I literally felt the same way my two first semesters of freshman year!

Then there’s Reagan – the roommate who’s out all hours, has about a dozen different boyfriends (or so Cath thinks) and has a habit of slamming doors and kicking them open:

“Don’t feel sorry for me. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me.”

“I can’t help it,” Reagan said. “You’re really pathetic.”

“I am not.”

“You are. You don’t have any friends, your sister dumped you, you’re a freaky eater … and you’ve got some weird thing about Simon Snow.”

 

I just adored this moment. Cath and Reagan’s heart-to-heart. Or you know, the closest thing to it. I love Reagan’s honesty. She’s a cool, collected, no shit-honest.

 

Relatable characters and snarky (somewhat bitchy) roomates are all good, but let’s be honest. My favorite part of Fangirl was Levi. How could it not be? He’s so amazingly friendly! So outgoing – exactly the kind of person that makes you go “I like that guy. I want to be friends with that guy.” within ten minutes of meeting him. But my abslute favorite thing about Levi, other than the eternal smile plastered on his face, his knight in shining armor attitude and the fact that he really is interested in Cath’s gay fanfiction, is the fact that he had a receding hairline. That was just a little quirky attribute that I loved (absolutely adored). And to be honest, please don’t judge me too much, I kind of liked the fact that he kissed another girl. Levi is seriously in danger of being too close to perfect.

 

Last but not least, the fanfiction. As a (former) avid Harry Potter fanfiction reader, this part of the book totally hit home with me. And I actually read Carry On and really liked it. Even though the magic was kind of weak and parody-like.

 

                          ****

 

I gave Fangirl four stars because I really liked it. It was so good and I would definitely read it again (even though this was actually a reread). And I would recommend it to anyone liking: books, fun and light books, romance, fantasy, fanfiction, coming-of-age stories, snarky roomates, adorable too perfect love interests etc. Just read it

What did you think of Fangirl? Have you read it? Did you like the Carry On, Simon parts? Have you read anything else by Rainbow Rowell? (Awesome pen name, btb.)