My boyfriend gave me this book as a graduation gift, pitching it as “Sex & the City, but for Saudi Arabia.” In fact, the TIME review on the back reads much to the same effect. But likening Girls of Riyadh to the late-90s television show really only works as far as the synopsis. Yes, both stories revolve around four women of unlikely wealth, all struggling to sort out their love lives. And yes, both stories are set in worlds I don’t really understand: one is an outdated cosmopolitan society rampant with classism and crippling gender roles, and the other is Saudi Arabia. But beyond these very skeletal elements, Girls’ heroines and Carrie Bradshaw simply don’t compare.
In terms of structure, fans of the chick lit genre will actually find more similarities between Alsanea’s debut novel and the continually abused dead horse, Gossip Girl. The exploits of four wealthy Saudi women are told through a series of emails from an anonymous sender. Each chapter begins with classes “From / To” email heading format popular in young women’s literature in the early 2000s (a trend that, at this point, is so worn out it almost bears a nostalgic charm). The fictitious author, whose popularity explodes from the time she starts sending her emails in early 2004 to when she wraps up her tale about a year later, is an unconventional spitfire, apparently emboldened by anonymity to act in a way that the women she writes about would never dare. “I have brushed on my bright red rouge,” she writes in an introduction to an early email, “and there is a big plate of pickled cucumbers next to me. This time around, I really need some munchies with bite, to keep me reminded of the sharp flavor of what I am about to write in this e-mail” (49-50). The anonymous writer, known only by the moniker “seerehwenfadha7et,” seems to savor her position as mysterious gossip queen just as much as she savors the gossip itself.
The contents of the emails center around four young women from Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia: Gamrah, Sadeem, Lamees, and Michelle. All four women suffer various misadventures in love, and the Western reader learns early on that the stakes are much higher for these women than even Bridget Jones could have imagined. Sadeem takes the first blow when she acts untraditionally in her brand-new marriage. During the milkah period – after the families sign an official “marriage contract” but before the ceremonial wedding takes place – Sadeem has sex with her semi-official husband, an act that leads him to divorce her, leaving her heartbroken and a less-desirable prospect for future suitors.
Gamrah, with whose wedding ceremony the novel begins, finds herself in a loveless marriage, stranded in the United States with no friends or family to lean on. When, in an attempt to save her marriage, she becomes pregnant, her husband banishes her back to Saudi Arabia and soon she, too, takes on the role of divorcée. Divorced Saudi women have it rough, to put it lightly. Her ex has no obligation to see their child or offer support, her chances of remarriage are slim to none, and she must move back in with her family, where she is forced to occupy the strange identity-space between mother and daughter.
Michelle, too, suffers, though not to the political or social extents that her friends do. She is the most outgoing and liberal of the group, often complaining that the other girls are too compliant, too traditional. After Lamees gets married towards the end of the book, the girls all wonder whether her new husband will allow her to continue studying to be a doctor. “This is her life,” Michelle says, “and she’s free to run it as she wants, just as he’s free to run his as he wants. Our problem here is that we let men be bigger deals than they really are” (235). Lamees, meanwhile, seems to be the only girl from Riyadh who gets off easy. She finds a nice husband and completes a medical education – a rare combination for Saudi women, according to our narrator.
Despite its firmly being rooted in the early 2000s, and containing ineluctable references to a culture foreign to English and American readers, Girls of Riyadh rings far more in tune with Jane Austen than Sex & the City. Its female protagonists play a complicated game of courtship, living in a country where the rules and protocols for romance extends way beyond how soon you should text him back. For these women, marriage does not merely signal an end-game for domestic bliss: it is their key to financial security, to a bearable quality of life. It seems, to those of us steeped in the online dating and hookup culture, like a relic from the past – especially since Alsanea’s English translation comes through most of the time as formal, bearing linguistic idiosyncrasies that bespeak esteem and elevation, not the, like, totally casual vernacular of 21st-century chicks.
It frustrates, then, that Riyadh’s chosen heroines don’t get the happy endings that Austen probably would have bestowed upon them. Which is, of course, the point. Alsanea did not write her novel to cater to a Western audience. Those of us with the privilege of glimpsing into her world through her writing, therefore, are getting the smallest taste of what life is like for women in Saudi Arabia today. It is not the romantic and perfumed paradise of the thousand-and-one nights, nor is it a dystopian Handmaid’s Tale depicting helpless women in the thrall of fundamentalist Islam. It is instead a world in progress, containing diverse and captivating women whose stories are just as relevant, multifaceted, and yes, even banal, as those of the women who live their lives in high heels and crop tops.