There is one scene in Laurie Devine's indigestible new novel that makes clear what kind of book this really is. It is a dramatic reunion of three of the central characters: a Saudi Arabian man, a new-generation petrocrat still clinging to tribal traditions; his wife, a blue-eyed blond airhead from Massachusetts; and their daughter, "a glorious girl with a tall slim athletic American figure, slanty almond-shaped dancing dark Arab eyes, and a lustrous mane of black hair."
Given the preceding events, this meeting could logically occur in one of three places: Boston, Vienna or al-Khobar. But no; they meet beside "luminous, misty Lac Leman," where "a stiff, gusty wind snapped some of the blossoms off the tulips, and birds shivered along the budding branches of the sycamore trees."
Leave aside for a moment the avalanche of adjectives -- Laurie Devine lays them on like styling mousse throughout the book. The question is why this scene takes place in Geneva. The obvious answer is that it will look wonderful on television as the closing shot in some episode of the mini-series that "Saudi" seems to have been created for.
Mini-series? "Saudi" could be stretched out for years, a "Falcon Crest" of the dunes, one overwrought episode after another, perpetuating stereotypes, patronizing the Arabs and bending the usual rules for bodice-busters with diversions into soft porn.
None of this would matter if "Saudi" were just pulp fiction. But the worst thing about it is that it trivializes important themes; the book trashes dramatic events of contemporary history that merit serious treatment, and it squanders what appears to be a prodigious amount of homework.
Certainly there's material for powerful fiction: the transformation of Saudi Arabia from backwater to petro-power, the cultural crisis of its modernizing people, the rise of OPEC and of Arab nationalism, the challenge of Muslim fundamentalism and even, on another level, the unhappy lot of American and European women who have married Gulf Arabs, only to find that life in the tent is more brutal and confining than it is romantic.
Devine appears to know a great deal about these trends, about Islam, about Saudi tribal customs and about Middle East events, but this is part of her problem as a novelist. The real-life protagonists in the contemporary Middle East are far more dynamic than any of the wooden characters she has added to the scene. No fictional character in this sand opera can match the drama of Nasser, of King Faisal, of the terrorist Carlos, of Khomeini.
The plot sounds promising: beautiful girl, daughter of an Aramco driller who went native in the early days of oil exploration in Saudi Arabia and harbors a guilty secret about his wife's death, grows up reading T.E. Lawrence and nurturing romantic illusions about the desert. The two British-educated sons of her father's old Saudi sidekick (his name might as well be Tonto) look her up when they come to America for graduate school. Naturally, she's defiled by the one who's a ne'er-do-well. Later she marries the other one and goes to live in Saudi Arabia, only to be thrown out of the desert love nest when the brother betrays their sordid secret. Will they or won't they get back together?
This could be interesting, but Devine loses no opportunity to torpedo it with excess verbiage, cliche's and inconsistencies of plot and character. All emotions are spelled out in Dick-and-Jane English: "He wiped his eyes and told himself it was best to send Sunny as far away as possible from him and from this hell. This hell of Saudi . . . Yes, he decided, that was it. Saudi was his own private hell." Or how about our heroine's response when she meets her ex-husband after their long separation: "From under lowered lashes she looked up and saw his eyes burning with that old wild-animal fire, and she was not a little alarmed to feel an answering heat start to simmer between her thighs."
If this book called for serious analysis, it would be necessary to examine some of the holes in the plot: If Tom Shannon has been camping in the desert with Arabs for years, how come he doesn't know any Arabic? If Sunny Shannon has immersed herself in the study of Arab culture, why is she surprised to learn she'll have to wear the veil in Saudi Arabia? Why do the two Saudi brothers still speak broken English after years of education at British and American universities?
But it's not really necessary to resolve the inconsistencies. The scriptwriter for the mini-series can do it.