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An Unnecessary Woman Hardcover – February 4, 2014

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Seventy-two-year-old Beirut native Aaliya Sobhi, living a solitary life, has always felt herself unnecessary. The father who adored her died young, and her remarried mother focused attention on Aaliya’s half brothers, leaving her to describe herself as “my family’s appendix, its unnecessary appendage,” an attitude reinforced by her Lebanese culture. Divorced at 20 after a negligible marriage, she lived alone and began her life’s work of translating the novels she most loved into Arabic from other translations, then simply storing them, unread, in her apartment. Sustained by her “blind lust for the written word” and surrounded by piles of books, she anticipates beginning a new translation project each year until disaster appears to upend her life. But these are just the bare bones of a plot. The richness here is in Aaliya’s first-person narration, which veers from moments in her life to literature to the wars that have wracked her beloved native city during her lifetime. Studded with quotations and succinct observations, this remarkable novel by Alameddine (The Hakawati, 2008) is a paean to fiction, poetry, and female friendship. Dip into it, make a reading list from it, or simply bask in its sharp, smart prose. --Michele Leber


Finalist for the National Book Award

Washington Post Top 50 Fiction Books of 2014; Kirkus Best Books of 2014; NPR Best Books of 2014; Amazon 100 Best Books of 2014; The Christian Science Monitor Top 10 Fiction Books of 2014


An Unnecessary Woman is a meditation on, among other things, aging, politics, literature, loneliness, grief and resilience. If there are flaws to this beautiful and absorbing novel, they are not readily apparent.”—New York Times

“[I]rresistible… [the author] offers winningly unrestricted access to the thoughts of his affectionate, urbane, vulnerable and fractiously opinionated heroine. Aaliya says that when she reads, she tries to 'let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book.' Mr. Alameddine's portrayal of a life devoted to the intellect is so candid and human that, for a time, readers can forget that any such barrier exists.”—Wall Street Journal

“Alameddine…has conjured a beguiling narrator in his engaging novel, a woman who is, like her city, hard to read, hard to take, hard to know and, ultimately, passionately complex.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“[An] opaque self-portrait of an utterly beguiling misanthrope… Aaliya notes that: “Reading a fine book for the first time is as sumptuous as the first sip of orange juice that breaks the fast in Ramadan.” You don’t have to fast first (in fact it helps to have gorged on the books that Aaliya translates and adores) in order to savor Alameddine’s succulent fiction.”— Steven G. Kellman, The Boston Globe

“You can't help but love this character.”—Arun Rath, NPR’s All Things Considered

“A restlessly intelligent novel built around an unforgettable character…a novel full of elegant, poetic sentences.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“I can’t remember the last time I was so gripped simply by a novel’s voice. Alameddine makes it clear that a sheltered life is not necessarily a shuttered one. Aaliya is thoughtful, she’s complex, she’s humorous and critical.”—

“[A] powerful intellectual portrait of a reader who is misread….a meditation on being and literature, written by someone with a passionate love of language and the power of words to compose interior worlds. It’s about how, and by what means, we survive. About how, in the end, what is hollow and unneeded becomes full, essential and enduring.”—Earl Pike, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Beautiful writing…sharp, smart and often sardonic…an homage to literature.”— Fran Hawthorne, The National

“Reading An Unnecessary Woman is about listening to a voice — Aaliya’s — not cantering through a plot, although powerful events do occur, both in the present and in memory…a fun, and often funny, book…rich in quirky metaphors… An Unnecessary Woman is not a game, though; it is a grave, powerful book. It is the hour-by-hour study of a woman who is struggling for dignity with every breath...The meaning of human dignity is perhaps the great theme of literature, and Alameddine takes it on in every page of this extraordinary book.”— Washington Independent Review of Books

“Playful, brainy and full of zest, An Unnecessary Woman is an antidote to literary blandness.”—Newsday

“Aaliya is a formidable character… When An Unnecessary Woman offers her what she regards as the corniest of conceits – a redemption arc – it’s a delight to see her take it.”—Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor

"An Unnecessary Woman is a book lover's book. If you've ever felt not at home in the world—or in your own skin—or preferred the company of a good book to that of an actual person, this book will welcome you with open arms and tell you that you're not alone. You just might find a home within its pages.”— Julie Hakim Azzam, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"An intimate, melancholy and superb tour de force...Alameddine’s storytelling is rich with a bookish humor that’s accessible without being condescending. A gemlike and surprisingly lively study of an interior life."—Kirkus(starred review)

“Studded with quotations and succinct observations, this remarkable novel by Alameddine is a paean to fiction, poetry, and female friendship. Dip into it, make a reading list from it, or simply bask in its sharp, smart prose.”— Michele Leber, Booklist (starred review)

"Alameddine’s most glorious passages are those that simply relate Aalyia’s thoughts, which read like tiny, wonderful essays. A central concern of the book is the nature of the desire of artistic creators for their work to matter, which the author treats with philosophical suspicion. In the end, Aalyia’s epiphany is joyful and freeing."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Acclaimed author Alameddine (The Hakawati) here relates the internal struggles of a solitary, elderly woman with a passion for books...Aaliya's life may seem like a burden or even "unnecessary" to others since she is divorced and childless, but her humor and passion for literature bring tremendous richness to her day-to-day life—and to the reader's... Though set in the Middle East, this book is refreshingly free of today's geopolitical hot-button issues. A delightful story for true bibliophiles, full of humanity and compassion."—Library Journal

“Around and about the central narrative, like tributaries, flow stories of those people Aaliyah has known…The city of Beirut itself is a character, collapsing, reshaping, renewing, mod¬ern¬ising as Aaliyah herself grows old. Aaliyah’s mordant wit is lit by Alameddine’s exquisite turns of phrase… An Unnecessary Woman is a story of innumerable things. It is a tale of blue hair and the war of attrition that comes with age, of loneliness and grief, most of all of resilience, of the courage it takes to survive, stay sane and continue to see beauty. Read it once, read it twice, read other books for a decade or so, and then pick it up and read it anew. This one’s a keeper.”— Aminatta Forna, The Independent (UK)

“[W]hat Alameddine offers here, most of all, is a window into the lives of Beiruti women... Aaliya, literary devotee, may consider herself “unnecessary”–but the novel proves very necessary indeed.”—Lambda

“A novel that manages to be both quiet and voluptuous, driven by a madcap intimacy that thoroughly resists all things ‘cute’ or ‘exotic.’”—Dwyer Murphy, Guernica

“Beautiful …despite [Aaliya’s] constant claims that she is unlovable it takes only a few pages of reading to realize this isn’t true – she’s extraordinary, even beguiling. She’s tough, opinionated, and deeply caring, but also passive, insecure, and fearful. Complex, in other words, and real. The novel is both intimate and expansive, opening out into the world of politics and war even as it’s rooted in the thoughts of this unnecessary, fascinating person.”— Aruna D'Souza,

“Aaliya is intelligent, acerbic and funny, one of those rare characters who becomes more real to readers than the people around them, and will remain will them for a long time.”—The Daily Star (Lebanon)

“Aaliya’s reminiscences make up “her total globe, her entire world”. In her, we see that feminism resists categorisation and is not defined by the West. Aaliyah embodies the self-determination of both the feminist and the writer, and exhibits vulnerability, determination and wisdom. But, most important, it is in the honesty of Aaliyah’s narration that we see the passion of the modern woman, full of knowledge and a vibrant interior world.”—Sarah Dempster, The Australian

“At once a sublime encomium to the art of reading well, where the pleasures of the text are called to the task of self-making, the novel is also a gentle appeal against loftiness. For every canonical seduction, there is pause for the folly of disconnection, the vanity of denial. In Alameddine’s examination of memory, translation and freedom, there is an insistence that life is more than the cruel absurdities of a reductive reality. An Unnecessary Woman charms with expressive cynicism and inadvertent optimism, shining a unique light on the art of storytelling.”—Readings (Australia)

“This impossibly beautiful funny novel is a window into another world. Rabih Alameddine has drawn a fierce and passionate character whose love of life and literature draws the reader into her labyrinthine story. An Unneccessary Woman is for anyone who has an enduring love affair with books, the desire to understand the human condition or a glimpse into the rich and exotic straddling of life that the city of Beirut epitomises.”—The (Australia)

An Unnecessary Woman dramatizes a wonderful mind at play. The mind belongs to the protagonist, and it is filled with intelligence, sharpness and strange memories and regrets. But, as in the work of Calvino and Borges, the mind is also that of the writer, the arch-creator. His tone is ironic and knowing; he is fascinated by the relationship between life and books. He is a great phrase-maker and a brilliant writer of sentences. And over all this fiercely original act of creation is the sky of Beirut throwing down a light which is both comic and tragic, alert to its own history and to its mythology, guarding over human frailty and the idea of the written word with love and wit and understanding and a rare sort of wisdom.”—Colm Toibin

"The extraordinary if “unnecessary” woman at the center of this magnificent novel built into my heart a sediment of life lived in reverse, through wisdom, epiphany, and regret. This woman—Aaliya is her name—for all her sly and unassuming modesty, is a stupendous center of consciousness. She understands time, and folly, and is wonderfully comic. She has read everything under the sun (as has her creator, Alameddine), and as a polyglot mind of an old world Beirut, she reminds us that storehouses of culture, of literature, of memory, are very fragile things indeed. They exist, shimmering, as chimeras, in the mind of Aaliya, who I am so happy to feel I now know. Her particularity, both tragic and lightly clever, might just stay with me forever."—Rachel Kushner

"There are many ways to break someone's heart, but Rabih Alameddine is one rare writer who not only breaks our hearts but gives every broken piece a new life. With both tender care and surgical exactness, An Unnecessary Woman leads us away from the commonplace and the mundane to enter a world made of love for words, wisdom, and memories. No words can express my gratitude for this book."
—Yiyun Li

"With An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine has accomplished something astonishing: a novel that is at once expansive and intimate, quiet and full of feeling. Aaliya is one of the more memorable characters in contemporary fiction, and every page of this extraordinary novel demands to be savored and re-read."—Daniel Alarcón

An Unnecessary Woman offers a testament to the saving virtue of literature and an unforgettable protagonist . . . . Alameddine maintains a steady electric current between past and present, fantasy and reality.”—D Repubblica (Italy)

“A contemporary fable about passion: passion for literature and the passions of love.”—L’Unita (Italy)

“Passion is the key to this book, which has already been hailed as a masterpiece: passion for a man, and passion for books.”—Oggi (Italy)

A Daily Beast Hot Read

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; 1 edition (February 4, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802122140
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802122148
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (254 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #137,822 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

74 of 76 people found the following review helpful By Xoe Li Lu VINE VOICE on January 5, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Rabih Alameddine's An Unnecessary Woman is a rare book indeed. This is the first time I recall reading an intelligent story about an older woman - completely about an older woman and no other characters - since Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent. The brilliant Alameddine has managed to beautifully capture the innermost thoughts of a complex, intelligent, lonely, and independent Beiruti woman in her early 70s – that’s something you don’t come across every day! Aaliya is not an incidental mother or wife, some ancillary character supporting male counterparts that could be removed from the story with little consequence – no, she is the heart, soul and troubled psyche of this intensely thoughtful, quietly moving book. Alameddine does an amazing job of empathizing with Aaliya and making her situation, her thoughts and experiences, real. A largely self-educated woman of high intelligence - an anomaly in Beirut society due to her independence and intellect - she is an observer, an inward thinker, a fly on the wall that bears witness to Beirut’s chaotic history over 50 years in her spacious, book-filled apartment. An outcast to her family and society at large, she skirts the expectations of others and manages to live her life as she wants, taking on long-term literary translation projects for her own pleasure, aloofly eavesdropping on her gossiping neighbors, and observing her beloved city from the shadows. The city of Beirut and its inhabitants also figure largely in the story. In many ways it is a love letter to Beirut, with all its flaws and conflict, danger and beauty.

Aaliya, as her name implies, is indeed "above it all;" she views her role in life as that of a casual spectator of events, both large and small.
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70 of 74 people found the following review helpful By Patricia VINE VOICE on November 17, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I can’t recall what originally attracted me to this book because if I had known a bit more I might not have gotten it. But I loved it! Once actually get a book I like to know nothing about it – I don’t read the reviews on the back. I like to be completely in the dark. The writing here is so well done – and just saturated with literature (that alone should inspire you to read it). It is a first person narrative and the voice is so true. The narrator is a 70-year old woman and only after I finished did I realize the author (Rabith Alameddine) is male. Wow – he got the voice. I will have to read much more of his writing.

I don’t like to give away much of plot lines but our narrator is a 70-year-old woman (close to my age!) living in current day Beirut. It is a good history lesson of that city though in a background kind of way. She retired from a bookstore, loves literature and spends all her time translating classics into Arabic. She is also a complete hermit barely having any human contact unless she can’t avoid it. And the plot takes off from there – marvelously. It is a very easy read and hard to put down. It spirals to an intriguing conclusion. I highly recommend it.

Now I have to go back and write down many of the books and authors she comments on so I too can read them. Many are classics but a lot of them are new to me, so much so that at first I wondered if this novel was making them up and until I quickly looked them up on Amazon and felt quite ignorant! There is a goldmine of literary references in this book, just casually tossed in, as well as comments on classics. I loved her quick analysis of Hemmingway and Faulkner! I'll be reading some of the books she comments on for years to come. Don’t miss this book…
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65 of 72 people found the following review helpful By Experienced Editor VINE VOICE on February 2, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Aaliya was given in an arranged marriage at age 16 and divorced at 20 for the fault of being childless. For 50+ years she has lived alone in her ex-husband's abandoned apartment in Beirut and translated books into Arabic. As she finishes each translation, she seals the manuscript pages into a box and stores it in her apartment. No one else will ever read it … an unnecessary translation, the labor of an unnecessary woman.

Aaliya's memoir is not so much story as the rambling reminiscence of a highly intelligent, self-educated recluse. She has cut herself off from her extended family, has few acquaintances, and has had only one friend in her life. Watch for the name Hannah, which is dropped into the narrative at intervals. It takes many pages before Aaliya is ready to reveal why Hannah is significant. (No, it's not what you’re thinking.) Aaliya's thoughts circle among bits of her childhood, her brief married life, her many years alone … with a great deal of emphasis on the books she has read, the philosophers she has studied, the history and the culture in which she lives. Although she hates to set foot outside her apartment, she is familiar with faraway times and places through her reading and translating. She offers her critiques as if she assumes the reader will be familiar with the authors and books and philosophies on which she is commenting. At times I found it frustrating to encounter a lengthy critique of a work I haven't read or an author I don’t know, but that's part of Aaliya's character. It's how she thinks.

Aaliya sums up her own story by quoting Pessoa (p.
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