Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea ll We're all the same under a different name*

15:51 Cilla P 3 Comments

Title: Girls of Riyadh
Author: Rajaa Alsanea
Publisher: Penguin Books
Source: Bought
Synopsis: Released in 2005 in Arabic, Girls of Riyadh caused a sensation throughout the Arab world. Now in English, Rajaa Alsanea's bold first novel exposes the hidden lives of young upper-class women and their personal conflicts with cultural traditions and offers Westerners an unprecedented glimpse into a society often veiled from view.

From the Saudi singles scene in Riyadh to their travels outside the country, four young women, Gamrah, Michelle, Sadeem, and Lamees, literally and figuratively shed traditional garb as they negotiate their love lives; their professional successes; their rebellions, large and small; and ultimately their place - somewhere in between contemporary Western society and their Islamic home.

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O God, we - the Girls of Riyadh - have been forbidden many things. Do not take the blessing of love away from us, too!
The premise of this book intrigued me right away. I had yet to read a book about women in Saudi Arabia. The fact that this is written by an Arabic woman made it even more appealing; an own voice story is likely to have more than just a few grains of truth in it, surely. Plus, stories about female friendships have a special place in my heart. So I went in with high hopes.

Some of my expectations were met, particularly with the leading ladies. The four women are all complex individuals. Some are more interested in pursuing a career, others in settling down. Some rail against traditional values and the limits they impose on romance, others negotiate their way within those boundaries and live relatively peacefully with them. Despite the unfamiliar setting, they are recognisable to me. I know that girl who falls so deeply in love she loses herself; the bright, sharp-tongued girl who would rather pave her own way than be told what to do; the girl who is happy to let someone else takes the wheel. At the end of the day, we all know what it's like to fall in love.

This book is also a compelling insight into Arabic social norms, I feel. Questions are raised throughout the story about whether those norms disadvantaged women, and I walked away from the book knowing more and with quite a number of things to ponder. This is the kind of book I'd make a friend read so we can discuss it. However, it's good to keep in mind that this is about upper-class women; whether women from other social strata have the same struggles with their culture is not covered here.

My main struggle with this book is the email format. The blurb on the back of my book compares this story to Sex and the City, but the format immediately reminded me of Gossip Girl. We have a narrator who (as far as we can tell) isn't directly involved in the stories, and I felt that put some distance between me and the characters; there's a lot of 'telling' instead of 'showing' with this kind of narrator. I still rooted for all of them, but I felt about three steps removed from being immersed completely in their lives.

All in all, this is a fascinating read, and I'd recommend it to people who are interested in learning about a different culture from the women's point of view.

Let's talk!

Have you read a book set in Saudi Arabia?

*Quote in title from Ingrid Michaelson's Blood Brother
Reading this book contributes to the following challenges:
  •  Goodreads Challenge
  • #DiversityReads2016 Challenge
  • Around the World 2016
  • The Backlist Books Reading Challenge
  • #RockMyTBR Challenge


  1. I hadn't heard of this one. I've been reading Zoe Ferraris' series set in Saudi Arabia that starts with Finding Nouf.

    1. Seems lots of people hadn't heard of it! Oooh and I hadn't heard of that series - I shall go check it out :D

  2. Another book to be read. Thanks.
    A great review.

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