The allure of Girls of Riyadh lies in its subversive intent to reveal the forbidden--the details of the private lives of four young Saudi women. Its form--a series of emails by an anonymous young female author about her friends issued after each Friday afternoon prayer over a year--amplifies this sense by allowing for two voices.
The first is the six-year long story chronicling the lives of four childhood friends from the Saudi capital's "velvet" class as they emerge into adulthood at the turn of the millennium. The social, professional, but mainly romantic tribulations of the shillah (coterie)--first-to-marry Gamrah, motherless Sadeem, half-American Michelle, and medical student Lamees--are what the anonymous friend-author's readers are following each week with great interest and commentary. The narrator focuses mostly on what these young, educated women with exposure to Western society feel, think, and love with the barest outlines of their daily lives. Interestingly their objections to societal norms hold very little economic, political or religious discontent; rather what they seek is an end to the endless judging of their conduct and independence both in the form of day to day mobility and ability to make decisions for themselves. Their aspirations remain firmly molded by their societal norms: marrying one's first love who becomes a caring, attentive husband--the happily-ever-after of Western fairy tales. Read a certain way, the novel might have a very politically incorrect recommendation for how to achieve it.
The narrator herself, however, brings another dimension to the novel. Unlike the long, elegant and somewhat exaggerated phrases of the main story which I am coming to identify as an Arabic style, her weekly commentary, whether response to reader feedback or broadcasting her message for social change, is laid out in a more vibrant, defiant, and informal tone. Her glee stems not from the courtship of a beloved, but from private enjoyment of her anonymous publicity. No doubt Alsanea, a young Saudi woman studying endodontics in Chicago, enjoyed attention to the same scale when the Arabic version, Banat Al-Riyadh, came out in Lebanon in 2005. Although it's probably going too far to label this debut novel "the first modern Arab novel," Girls of Riyadh does expose us to the hopes, dreams, and struggles of an elite sliver of Saudi women. Such is the extent to which it resembles Sex and the City to which it has been compared.