Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' review of The Girls of Riyadh.
Imagine four young women. Vivacious and lovely, educated, modern and fashionable. When they meet, it is to party and share their innermost secrets. When they shop, they buy till they drop. When they dine, they eat and drink till they are ready to burst. There is the constant ringing of the cellphones. Then there are the heartbreaks; the men they love may be dashing and handsome, but they are often the cause of tears and sorrow.
Is this Sex and the City in a new avatar, a story of four women in New York, Paris or any other fashion capital of the world?
Wrong. The setting is Riyadh, one of the most conservative and restrictive capitals of the world. Where women are forbidden to drive. Forbidden to appear in public without covering their bodies in the tent-like abaya. Also forbidden is mixing with the opposite gender. If all this appears dull and claustrophobic, just flip through Rajaa Alsanea's Girls of Riyadh to get a picture that is a complete turnabout.
The four young women - Gamrah, Sadeem, Lamees and Michelle (or Mashael) - belong to the elite Saudi society and are at ease in both worlds. However, their ambitions are often in conflict with the desires of their conservative families. At trying times such as these, it is their friendship that provides succor.
Their stories appear as a series of posts on an Internet forum by an anonymous narrator. As the events in the girls' lives unfold in weekly installments, there is a tremendous response from the subscribers to the group. Week after week, like a modern day Scheherazade, the narrator weaves these questions, queries and thoughts of the readers into her story. What we have, then, is a wonderful kaleidoscope of enchanting dreams and ambitions, friendship and understanding, romance and bitterness and all that young women the world over experience as they come of age.
Apart from the huge controversy generated in Saudi Arabia by religious extremists who demanded and obtained a ban on the book (the ban was recently lifted), the author has faced harsh criticism for portraying a Saudi world of the wealthy and elite - a world so rich in opportunity and luxury that the women characters are shown to holiday in Europe and elsewhere to mend their broken hearts. This is somewhat justified as the book does or says nothing for the majority of Saudi women for whom social injustice and lack of economic opportunities prevent a decent life.
Yet the strength and conviction of these four friends as they jostle between tradition and modernity and find their own answers may form part of a zeitgeist for Saudi women to recognize human needs above tradition.