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VINE VOICEon 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. She is a resourceful and capable woman, able to stand up to bullying men in her life (from rioting looters to soldiers to her spiteful half-brothers), behavior which is contrary to her meek self-image. She is a fascinating study in contrasts - how she views herself and how she actually behaves and comports herself completely dissimilar.

Largely unsuccessful with human relationships, Aaliya acknowledges her difficulty in relating to others and is at peace with it. She retreats into the world of literature, meticulously translating great works into Arabic for her own pleasure and distraction. Translation is where she finds joy, industry, purpose, and identity. It gets her through war, personal loss, and loneliness. Her translation projects enable her to rise above the devastation that often surrounds her and provides an alternate focus - something upon which to concentrate to drown out the chaos of life in Beirut. "Sneaking off into literature to escape life" keeps her sane and functioning for fifty years.

Aaliya works through her feelings of uselessness and loneliness. She drops to the depths of depression and is buoyed with confidence and hope. She realizes that no matter how old one becomes, you can always be shattered by a single utterance from your own mother. At times she reflects on her unusual circumstances – no husband, no children, no occupation - and suffers moments of crushing, debilitating disappointment and defeat. In the end, circumstances force her to view her life from another perspective, and she experiences a revelation that is as uplifting for the reader as it must be for her.

Alameddine is a master storyteller – he has an innate ability to choose the perfect words to create beautiful sentences that perfectly relate subtle emotion. His characters and scenes are easy to envision and his stories reverberate with the reader for weeks – months – after a book is finished. While “An Unnecessary Woman” may at first glance appear to be depressing and heavy, I can assure you that it is not. Alameddine manages to discuss heady themes – loneliness, aging, despair – without bringing the reader down. I can’t even explain how he does this. The book is so gorgeously written, so evocative and so lush; I understood the characters intrinsically, yet I was not saddened while reading it. Aaliya is not all gloom and doom – she is a vibrant, thinking woman who ruminates on what is it to age, and that process naturally carries with it a host of emotions. She is matter-of-fact and very likeable – she’s the kind of person you never really get to know very well in real life, and here Alameddine has given us an invitation to explore every aspect of her beautiful, flawed psyche. I empathized with Aaliyah, understood her and respected her. Michael Chabon pronounced Alameddine a “daring” writer, and I have to agree. Taking on this subject, in today’s youth-obsessed climate, and making something so beautiful out of it is truly a feat. I am so glad that I read “An Unnecessary Woman” – it will stay with me for a very long time.
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on December 2, 2017
4.5 stars. A beautiful story about a book-loving, book translator's life, spanning from childhood to old age, all while living in Beirut. The writing is superb, and the stories about her life are sad, but gripping. I didn't give it 5 stars because there was one section I felt dragged on and slowed down the momentum, but more importantly didn't add anything to the plot.

Overall, a fast-paced, emotional, and stunningly beautiful read.
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on February 26, 2015
This was a wonderful book and I felt that I got to know the main character really well. It was easy to identify with her in some ways. In light of that, survival in a war torn country is difficult to imagine. She coped in her own way and made a life for herself that was comforting and distracting from the troubles of Beirut. The characters were all well drawn and the women in this particular building were strong in their own ways and likable too. The main character was strong too, although she did not recognize this strength in herself. Building a life for herself in terrible times was a matter of routine and ritual. Things that are important to all of us.
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on October 8, 2016
This book has grown on me after reading it. A 70ish woman, who has lived in Beirut all her life, recounts the story of her life. After a brief arranged marriage, her life has consisted mainly of running a bookstore and translating favorite books into Arabic, never bothering to have her translations translated. Very little action, let alone plot, making reading it tedious at times. What the book has going for it though is the voice of the narrator and its authenticity. The end of the book is its best section, with a touching visit to her aged mother, bathing her dry cracked feet with a young granddaughter and the joint effort of her fellow tenants, whom she has always avoided, to save her translations after the flood of her apartment.
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on September 27, 2014
A book designed for readers of world literature. Aaliya, divorced and childless and therefore 'unnecessary', introduces us to the beauties of pre-war Beirut; relives in her mind the devastation of Beirut and the sufferings of Beirutis during Israeli attacks and religiously divisive civil conflicts; and criticizes the crowded, modern Beirut of today. Beautifully written in the voice of a woman who has reached that stage in life where things seem to have fallen permanently into place. Unexpectedly, Aaliya suddenly experiences events that dramatically change her perspective. Alameddine teaches us a great deal about books, and even more about life.
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on May 30, 2017
Awesome. Was shocked by the number of authors I was exposed to by reading this. I though I was super well-read until I realized, yeah, but only for those who write in English. Have a HUGE list of new authors now!
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on June 1, 2014
"An Unnecessary Woman" is a delicious, intelligent, poignant novel -- laced with wit and humor. Yes, all of that in a chapterless novel written in first-person, present tense, from the female narrator's point of view. Never mind that the author is a man; Alameddine is immensely successful in creating and living in the skin of an aging female recluse characterized by shyness and a low opinion of her own worth. He is masterful at crafting sentences (and quotable quotes) that reflect human insights and observations that many of us share -- but don't express.

Born female and ordinary into a male-dominated Lebanese society, and stigmatized by divorce, Aaliyah has lived a mostly unappreciated life, filled with characters whom she chronicles in her candid stream-of-consciousness narrative. Aaliyah is a keen observer of life, but not a participant. She is an eavesdropper, absorbing her neighbors' daily chats and activities, but never joining in. Reading is one of Aaliyah's two obsessions. The other is translating books -- books that, when completed, end up boxed, stacked, and unread by anyone other than herself.

One component of this novel that diminished my personal enjoyment was author Alameddine's overabundance of literary allusions. In fact, I looked up some of Aaliyah's references to various writers for the sole purpose of enriching my reading experience. It would be wonderful to possess Alameddine's repertoire of literary knowledge, but I don't. Nevertheless, my unfamiliarity with certain works does not diminish the merit of this book.

One last note: Without divulging any details, I will add that "An Unnecessary Woman" provides a very satisfying ending.
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on July 21, 2015
I am an avid reader of literature and the classics, and yet it has been years since I have read a modern novel that is so well written. His writing is so fresh, so free of clichés, truly sui generis, to use a term that appears a few times within this book. The protagonist, a woman of seventy-two years, is as real and powerful in her own eccentric way as anyone with which one would want to share a day.
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on November 9, 2015
What an amazing story! Provocative, fascinating, and ultimately a confirmation of the beauty of Life and friendship. The reader is drawn into the daily routines and memories of a woman whose life has become increasingly marginalized, sometimes by her own choices, and sometimes by the cultural expectations and political forces that surround her in Beirut.
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on December 2, 2014
The protagonist of An Unnecessary Woman may live a private life enriched primarily by her secretive passion for reading and translating books into Lebanese (translations no one will read because she never publishes them)An but her honest introspection and commentary gives the reader insight into elements of intimacy, survival, war, family, marriage, and friendship. Rabih Alameddine has an expansive and deep familiarity with authors and ideas from both classic and contemporary literature and from varied cultures. The title character may dismiss herself and her translations as "unnecessary," but she is as defined and memorable as any of the classic heroines she has come to know through works of literature. And her perspectives about life in war-torn Lebanon are as universal to other war-ravaged literary settings, as unique to a culture that has been rarely covered in works of literature, and as common to relationships in every age. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking book.
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