The Occasional Virgin, which features two friends who fled the conflict in Lebanon 20 years previously. Huda is a Muslim and lives in Canada; Yvonne, who lives in London, is Christian. Both are independent and successful, but grew up in households weighted in favour of men, with difficult mothers to contend with, and this past comes in flashbacks after they meet for a holiday on the Italian coast. They are also single, and it is clear that they are sexual adventurers on this trip abroad: Yvonne flirts aggressively with an Italian student while Huda goes on a date with a gardener ... The novel shows some early promise – a discussion of their displacement from Lebanon is illuminating, and contrasts are set up between the friends’ faiths - but sadly this is not explored with any degree of depth. Instead, indirect inner monologues create flat and binary characters.
Both born in Beirut, thirtysomethings Huda and Yvonne meet at a conference featuring successful Lebanese women, and friendship blossoms. Huda is a theater director in Toronto, and Yvonne runs an advertising agency in London ... The two women reflect on the lives they left behind in Lebanon as they explore Italy and, a few months later, reunite in London, each continuing to seek out a hoped-for future ... Al-Shaykh’s first novel to be translated into English is a refreshing, thought-provoking look at the weight of history on the lives we build for ourselves.
Al-Shaykh is a Lebanese novelist and short story writer, long resident in London, who writes in Arabic. Because of her years in the U.K. and her frank discussion of sexual matters in fiction often set in Arab countries...al-Shaykh has had to contend with charges that she has divorced herself from the Arab world she continues to mine for stories and that her depiction of Arab women smacks of Orientalism. Such overblown accusations need not detain us here. In fact, an intriguing (and counterintuitive) aspect of The Occasional Virgin is that al-Shaykh has dulled the edge of much of her original Arabic-language material. This process appears to have begun with the book’s very title.