Monday, June 16, 2014

An Unnecessary Woman

Book 31 of my 2014 Reading Challenge

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Summary (via Goodreads)
A heartrending novel that celebrates the singular life of an obsessive introvert, revealing Beirut's beauties and horrors along the way.
Aaliya Sohbi lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books.  Godless, fatherless, divorced and childless, Aaliya is her family's "unnecessary appendage".  Every year, she translates a new favorite book into Arabic, then stows it away.  The thirty-seven books that Aaliya has translated have never been read - by anyone.  After overhearing her neighbors, "the three witches", discussing her too-white hair, Aaliya accidentally dyes her hair too blue.
In this breathtaking portrait of a reclusive woman's late-life crisis, readers follow Aaliya's digressive mind as it ricochets across visions of past and present Beirut.  Insightful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and Aaliya's volatile past.  As she tries to overcome her aging body and spontaneous emotional upwellings, Aaliya is faced with an unthinkable disaster that threatens to shatter the little life she has left.
My Opinion
There were no chapters but the page breaks built in every few pages felt like natural pauses.  Written in the first person, it really felt like Aaliya was telling me a story and the pauses were the moments of silence that occur when someone takes a breath or gets a drink.  It also felt like I was listening to a narration because Aaliya would frequently go off on tangents, only to say things like 'right, let's get back to the lunch, shall we?' and pick up where she left off pages earlier.

Some examples of the author's beautifully vivid phrasing:
- "In every evocation of a childhood scene, my stepfather's face is the least detailed, the most out of focus; when I think of him my memory's eyes have cataracts."
-"Such a worrywart I am.  I miss miracles blooming before my very eyes: I concentrate on a fading star and miss the constellation."
-"We stumbled into friendship.  She was the first person who wished to have me in her life, the first to choose me."
-"frankly it was quite a long time before I understood much of what I was reading...In philosophy, I was a page-turner long before I was a reader."

Aaliya was funny, too:
-"Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden."
-"There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies.  Enough.  Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don't experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.  Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn't as clear and concise as your stories."

This is frustrating because the parts that were good were so so good but the unevenness prevents a wholehearted recommendation.  I would repeatedly be drawn in only to find myself skimming a few pages later.  As I mentioned, it felt like I was listening to a real person.  Am I going to be enchanted by every sentence that comes out of her mouth?  No.  Am I glad I heard her story?  Yes. 

Quote from the Book
"In other words, most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we've made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us.  We rarely consider that we're also formed by the decisions we didn't make, by events that could have happened but didn't, or by our lack of choices, for that matter."

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