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Keija Parssinen is a Columbia entrepreneur who has persuaded lots of wannabe authors to pay for her services as a writing coach. With the advent of 2012, not only Columbia wannabe writers but also readers across the nation will judge Parssinen’s talent for themselves. Her first novel, “The Ruins of Us,” has reached retail stores and online booksellers. The publisher is Harper Perennial, a big-time, New York imprint that is part of the HarperCollins conglomerate.
Those hoping for Parssinen’s success will not be disappointed in the quality of her fiction. The novel is superb. It is set primarily in contemporary Saudi Arabia, which is no surprise given Parssinen’s personal history. Born in Saudi Arabia to a multi-generation expatriate family, Parssinen lived there until age 12. Shifting her life to the United States, she earned an English literature degree from Princeton University and a master’s degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the best-known MFA program in the nation.
During 2010, a year after moving to Columbia with husband Michael Robertson, Parssinen founded the Quarry Heights Writers Workshop, named after the Columbia neighborhood where she resides. Income from the workshop supplements her part-time salary as admissions officer of Columbia Independent School. She says she felt “inspired by Columbia’s vibrant creative spirit,” so decided “to establish a home where area writers could share their work with peers, give and receive feedback on manuscripts, and learn about the craft of fiction and nonfiction writing.”
The first major review of the novel appeared in Publishers Weekly magazine, a place where all authors hope to receive praise because bookstores and libraries rely on the reviews as they decide which books to buy. The reviewer said the “gripping, well-crafted debut tracks the awakening of a Saudi Arabian family to the dangers that lurk within.” The wife/mother, Rosalie, is an American from Texas who met Abdullah al-Baylani when he left Saudi Arabia to earn a degree at the University of Texas. They married young, and Rosalie agreed to reside in Saudi Arabia, where she had grown up because of her parents being stationed there on business. Two children from the marriage, a 14-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son, also figure prominently in the narrative, which mingles subplots of marriage, childrearing, extramarital passion, business matters, internal Saudi politics and international hatreds.
Despite the crisscrossing narrative lines, Parssinen never loses control of the book. Many, probably most, first novels demonstrate large patches of rawness. Parssinen’s first novel feels extraordinary polished, supremely mature.