“The Occasional Virgin” by Hanan al-Shaykh is a fine literary novel wrapped inside a summer read. Poignant reflections about family, religion and memory are juxtaposed with raucous sexual antics and clever displays of friendship, making this novel about upending stereotypes a genre-bending romp.
At the center of it all are Huda, a theater director from Canada, and Yvonne, an advertising executive from London. Both women grew up in Lebanon, and despite their different traditions (Huda is from a Muslim family, and Yvonne grew up Christian), both have similar memories of not fitting in with their families and feeling ostracized and misunderstood.
While confidently pursuing vacation paramours in Italy, the seaside brings old memories to the surface, as Yvonne explains: “The sea brought me face to face with my family and Lebanon and everything again, and made me realize for the first time how these memories ruin my life.”
Both women want to shake off the constraints of the past: how they were never enough for their families; how their religions were bent to favor men and their ambitions.
So when they meet in London three months later and encounter a religious fanatic at Speaker’s Corner, they put a plan in place to expose his hypocrisy and, in a way, break free from their pasts in order to become their authentic selves.
While “The Occasional Virgin” slows a bit with the long exchanges at Speaker’s Corner, the momentum returns when the narrative shifts back to Huda and Yvonne and breaks structurally, allowing for long stretches from each woman’s perspective.
Huda’s sureness is perfectly balanced with Yvonne’s false confidence, and al-Shaykh’s cleverly mirrors the adventures of both women in surprising ways.
A clever, modern novel, “The Occasional Virgin” is a thoughtful adventure.