An Unnecessary Woman

An Unnecessary Woman

4.2 8
by Rabih Alameddine

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Winner of the California Book Award

Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award

Finalist for the National Book Award

“Beautiful and absorbing.”—New York Times

An Unnecessary Woman is a breathtaking portrait of one reclusive woman’s late-life crisis, which garnered a wave of rave reviews and love letters to

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Winner of the California Book Award

Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award

Finalist for the National Book Award

“Beautiful and absorbing.”—New York Times

An Unnecessary Woman is a breathtaking portrait of one reclusive woman’s late-life crisis, which garnered a wave of rave reviews and love letters to Alameddine’s cranky yet charming septuagenarian protagonist, Aaliya, a character you “can’t help but love” (NPR). Aaliya’s insightful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and her volatile past. As she tries to overcome her aging body and spontaneous emotional upwellings, Aaliya is faced with an unthinkable disaster that threatens to shatter the little life she has left. Here, the gifted Rabih Alameddine has given us a nuanced rendering of one woman's life in the Middle East and an enduring ode to literature and its power to define who we are.

“A paean to the transformative power of reading, to the intellectual asylum from one’s circumstances found in the life of the mind.”—LA Review of Books

“[The novel] throbs with energy…[Aaliya’s] inventive way with words gives unfailing pleasure, no matter how dark the events she describes, how painful the emotions she reveals.”—Washington Post

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 10/14/2013
Midway through Alameddine’s new novel, the narrator thinks: “There should be a literary resolution: No more epiphanies. Enough. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.” Like his previous novel The Hakawati, An Unnecessary Woman is set in Beirut, and this time the beauties and horrors of the city are seen through the eyes of Aalyia Sohbi, a 72-year-old translator who was born there and remained through the war. The elements that make up Aalyia’s chosen life are minimal: reading, translating, an apartment, and a single friend, dead long ago. Her habit of many years is to begin each new translation, according to a strict system, on the first day of the year. The solitude that allows for this work is precious, unusual, and precarious, and when it is threatened by the ongoing war and her patriarchal family, she answers with a machine gun. 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. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi Agency. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Acclaimed author Alameddine (The Hakawati) here relates the internal struggles of a solitary, elderly woman with a passion for books. From her Beirut apartment, Aaliya Sohbi devotes her time to translating works of literature from various languages into Arabic. She then stores her translations in boxes and crates in the so-called maid's room and shares them with no one. Aaliya also eavesdrops on the neighbors and remembers childhood days, her unhappy marriage, and the war years, when she defended her apartment with an AK-47. She has few of the usual consolations of old age and does not fit the traditional roles assigned to women. 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. VERDICT 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. [See Prepub Alert, 8/12/13.]—Gwen Vredevoogd, Marymount Univ. Libs., Arlington, VA
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-10-21
A 72-year-old Beiruti woman considers her life through literature in an intimate, melancholy and superb tour de force. Alameddine has a predilection for highly literary conceits in his novels: I, the Divine (2001) is constructed out of the discarded first chapters of its heroine's memoir, while his 2008 breakthrough, The Hakawati, nests stories within stories lush with Arab lore. This book has a similarly artificial-seeming setup: Aaliya is an aging woman who for decades has begun the year translating one of her favorite books into Arabic. (Her tastes run toward the intellectual titans of 20th-century international literature, including W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolano, Joseph Roth, Vladimir Nabokov and Fernando Pessoa.) Though, until its climax, there's little action in the course of the day in which the novel is set, Aaliya is an engagingly headstrong protagonist, and the book is rich with her memories and observations. She's suffered through war, a bad marriage and the death of a close friend, but most exasperating for her are her pestering mother and half brothers, who've been lusting after Aaliya's apartment. As she walks through the city, she considers these fractures in her life, bolstering her fatalism against quotes from writers and the tragic histories of her beloved composers. Her relatively static existence is enlivened by her no-nonsense attitude, particularly when it comes to contemporary literature. ("Most of the books published these days consist of a series of whines followed by an epiphany.") And though Aaliya's skeptical of redemption narratives, Alameddine finds a way to give the novel a climax without feeling contrived. Aaliya is an intense critic of the human condition, but she never feels embittered, and 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.
From the Publisher
Finalist for the National Book Award

Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle 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, modern¬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

Product Details

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn’t help my concentration.

Let me explain.

First, you should know this about me: I have but one mirror in my home, a smudged one at that. I’m a conscientious cleaner, you might even say compulsive—the sink is immaculately white, its bronze faucets sparkle—but I rarely remember to wipe the mirror clean. I don’t think we need to consult Freud or one of his many minions to know that there’s an issue here.

I begin this tale with a badly lit reflection. One of the bathroom’s two bulbs has expired. I’m in the midst of the evening ritual of brushing my teeth, facing said mirror, when a halo surrounding my head snares my attention. Toothbrush in right hand still moving up and down and side to side, left hand reaches for reading glasses lying on the little table next to the toilet. Once on my face atop my obtrusive nose they help me see that I’m neither a saint nor saintly but more like the Queen Mother—well, an image of the Queen Mother smudged by a schoolgirl’s eraser. No halo this, the blue anomaly is my damp hair. A pigment battle rages atop my head, a catfight of mismatched contestants.

I touch a still-wet lock to test the permanency of the blue tint and end up leaving a sticky stain of toothpaste on it. You can correctly presume that multitasking is not my forté.

I lean over the bathtub, pick up the tube of Bel Argent shampoo I bought yesterday. I read the fine print, squinting even with the reading glasses. Yes, I used ten times the amount prescribed while washing my hair. I enjoy a good lather. Reading instructions happens not to be my forté either.

Funny. My bathroom tile is rectangular white with two interlocking light blue tulips, and that is almost the same shade as my new dye. Luckily, the blue isn’t that of the Israeli flag. Can you imagine? Talk about a brawl of mismatched contestants.

Usually, vanity isn’t one of my concerns, doesn’t disconcert me much. However, I’d overheard the three witches discussing the unrelenting whiteness of my hair. Joumana, my upstairs neighbor, had suggested that if I used a shampoo like Bel Argent, the white would be less flat. There you have it.

As I understand it, and I might be wrong as usual, you and I tend to lose short wavelength cones as we age, so we’re less able to distinguish the color blue. That’s why many people of a certain age have a bluish tint to their hair. Without the tint, they see their hair as pale yellow, or possibly salmon. One hairstylist was describing on the radio how he finally convinced this old woman that her hair was much too blue. However, his client refused to change the color. It was much more important that she see her hair as natural than that the rest of the world do so.

I’d probably get along with the client better than I would with the hairdresser.
I too am an old woman, but I have yet to lose many short wavelength cones. I can distinguish the color blue a bit too clearly right now.

Allow me, my dear friend, to offer a mild defense for being distracted. At the end of the year, before I begin a new project, I read the translation I’ve completed. I do final corrections (minor), set the pages in order, and place them in the box. This is part of the ritual, which includes imbibing two glasses of red wine. I also have to admit that the last reading allows me to pat myself on the back, to congratulate myself on completing the project. This year, I translated the superb novel Austerlitz, my second translation of W. G. Sebald. I was reading it today, and for some reason, probably the protagonist’s unrequited despair, I couldn’t stop thinking of Hannah, I couldn’t, as if the novel, or my Arabic translation of it, was an inductor into Hannah’s world.

Remembering Hannah, my one intimate, is never easy. I still see her before me at the kitchen table, her plate wiped clean of food, her right cheek resting on the palm of her hand, head tilted slightly, listening, offering that rarest of gifts, her unequivocal attention. My voice had no home until her.

During my seventy-two years, she was the one person I cared for, the one I told too much—boasts, hates, joys, cruel disappointments, all jumbled together. I no longer think of her as often as I used to, but she magically appears in my thoughts every now and then. The traces of Hannah on me have become indelible.
Percolating remembrances, red wine, an old woman’s shampoo: mix well and end up with blue hair.

I’ll wash my hair once more in the morning, with no-more-tears baby shampoo this time. Hopefully the blue will fade. I can just imagine what the neighbors will say now.

For most of my adult life, since I was twenty-two, I’ve begun a translation every January first. I do realize that this a holiday and most choose to celebrate, most do not consider working on New Year’s Day. Once, as I was leafing through the folio of Beethoven’s sonatas, I noticed that only the penultimate, the superb 110 in A-flat major, was dated on the top right corner, as if the composer wanted us to know that he was busy working that Christmas Day in 1821. I too choose to keep busy during holidays.

Over these last fifty years I’ve translated fewer than forty books—thirty-seven, if I’ve counted correctly. Some books took longer than a year, others refused to be translated, and one or two bored me into submission—not the books themselves, but my translation of them. Books in and of themselves are rarely boring, except for memoirs of American presidents (No, No, Nixon)—well, memoirs of Americans in general. It’s the “I live in the richest country in the world yet pity me because I grew up with flat feet and a malodorous vagina but I triumph in the end” syndrome. Tfeh!

Books into boxes—boxes of paper, of loose translated sheets. That’s my life.
I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word. Literature is my sandbox. In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time. It is the world outside that playpen that gives me trouble. I have adapted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my world of books. To continue the metaphor, if literature is my sandbox, then the real world is my hourglass—an hourglass that drains grain by grain. Literature gives me life, and life kills me.

Well, life kills everyone.

But that’s a morose subject. Tonight I feel alive—blue hair and red wine alive. The end of the year approaches, the beginning of a new year. The year is dead. Long live the year. I will begin my next project. This is the time that excites me most. I pay no attention to the Christmas decorations that burst into fruitful life in various neighborhoods of my city, or the lights welcoming the New Year in other parts. This year, Ashura falls at almost the same time, but I don’t care.

Let the people flagellate themselves into a frenzy of remembrance. Wails, whips, blood: the betrayal of Hussein moves me not.

Let the masses cover themselves in gold, frankincense, and Chanel to honor their savior’s birth. Trivia matters naught to me.

Beginnings are pregnant with possibilities. As much as I enjoy finishing a translation, it is this time that tickles my marrow most. The ritual of preparation: setting aside the two versions of the book of choice, the papers, the notebook that’s to be filled with actual notes, the 2B graphite pencils with the sharpener and Pearl eraser, the pens. Cleaning the reading room, dusting the side table, vacuuming the curtains and the ancient armchair, a navy chenille with knotted fringes hanging off its arms. On the day of genesis, the first of January, I begin the morning with a ceremonial bath, a rite of scrubbing and cleansing, after which I light two candles for Walter Benjamin.

Let there be light, I say.

Yes, my dear friend, I am a tad obsessive. For a nonreligious woman, this is my faith.
This year, though, for the first time in quite a while, I’m not certain about the book I want to work with. This year, for the first time ever, I might have to begin a translation while having blue hair. Aiiee.

I’ve decided on Roberto Bolaño’s unfinished novel 2666, but I’m nurturing doubts. At over nine hundred pages (in both the English and French versions), it is no small feat, or no short feat. It will take me at least two years. Should I be taking on such long-term projects? Should I be making accommodation for my age? I’m not talking about my dying. I am in good health, and women in my family live long. My mother is still going insane. Let’s put it this way: I don’t hesitate when buying green bananas, but I’m slowing down. 2666 is a big project. Savage Detectives required nineteen months, and I believe my work rate isn’t what it was then. So I balk.

Yes, I’m healthy, I have to keep reminding myself. During my biannual checkup earlier this week, my doctor insisted that I was in sturdy health, like iron. He’s right, of course, and I’m grateful, but what he should have compared me to was rusty iron. I feel oxidized. What was it that Yourcenar, as Hadrian, wrote about physicians? A man does not practice medicine for more than thirty years without some falsehood. My doctor has been practicing for longer than that. We’ve grown old together. He told me that my heart is in good shape, talked to me with his face hidden behind a computer printout of my lab results. Even I, a Luddite, haven’t seen such archaic perforated printouts in years. His mobile phone, a Blackberry lying on the desk next to his left elbow, was definitely the latest model, which should count for something. I have yet to own one. But then, I have no need for a phone, let alone a smart one; no one calls me.

Please, no pity or insincere compassion. I’m not suggesting that I feel sorry for myself because no one calls me, or worse, that you should feel sorry. No one calls me. That’s a fact.

I am alone.

It is a choice I’ve made, yet it’s also a choice made with few other options available. Beiruti society wasn’t fond of divorced childless women in those days.

Still, I made my bed—a simple, comfortable, and adequate bed, I might add.

I was fourteen when I began my first translation, twenty dull pages from a science textbook. It was the year I fell in love with Arabic—not the oral dialect, mind you, but the classical language. I’d studied it since I was a child, of course, as early as I’d studied English or French. Yet only in Arabic class were we constantly told that we could not master this most difficult of languages, that no matter how much we studied and practiced, we could not possibly hope to write as well as Mutanabbi, or heaven forbid, the apex of the language, the Quran itself. Teachers indoctrinated students, just as they had been indoctrinated when younger. None of us can rise above being a failure as an Arab, our original sin.

I’d read the Quran and memorized large chunks of it, but all that studying didn’t introduce me to the language’s magic—forced learning and magic are congenital adversaries.

I was seven when I took my first Quranic class. The teacher, a wide, bespectacled stutterer, would lose her stutter when she recited the Quran; a true miracle, the other teachers claimed.

Meet the Author

Rabih Alameddine is the author of the novels Koolaids, I, the Divine, and The Hakawati, and the story collection The Perv.

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