The Occasional Virgin: A Novel

The Occasional Virgin: A Novel

by Hanan al-Shaykh


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In this frank and fearless novel, acclaimed writer Hanan al-Shaykh follows the tumultuous lives and sometimes shocking choices of women successful in their careers but unlucky in love.
On a sunny beach on the Italian Riviera, two thirtysomething women, Yvonne and Huda, relax by the sparkling sea. But despite the setting, as their vacation unfolds, their complicated pasts seep through to the idyllic present. Both women spent their childhoods in Lebanon—Yvonne raised in a Christian family, Huda in a Muslim one—and they now find themselves torn between the traditional worlds they were born into and the successful professional identities they’ve created.
Three months later, when Huda (a theater director from Toronto) visits Yvonne (an advertising executive) in London, a chance encounter with a man at Speaker’s Corner leads to profound repercussions for them both. As the novel continues, each woman will undertake her own quest for love and romance, revenge and fulfillment. Witty and wry, The Occasional Virgin is a poignant and perceptive tale for our time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524747510
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/10/2018
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

HANAN AL-SHAYKH, an award-winning journalist, novelist, and playwright, is the author of the short-story collections I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops and One Thousand and One Nights; the novels The Story of Zahra, Women of Sand and Myrrh, Beirut Blues, and Only in London; and a memoir about her mother, The Locust and the Bird. She was raised in Beirut, educated in Cairo, and lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Two Women by the Sea
To reach the sea, Huda and Yvonne travel like a pair of ants, one behind the other. Two very cautious ants, as the road twists and turns deceptively, and motorists are surprised by the sudden appearance of people on foot, and by overhanging branches, extending in all directions.
‘Let’s cross over to the pavement,’ Yvonne begs Huda, trying to free her hair from a trailing branch.
They stop for a moment, then set off on their way again, the never-ending stream of cars moving so quickly that their passengers hardly have time to turn their heads and glance fleetingly at the two women, who are in fact extremely pretty. One dark, one fair; one tall, one average height; both perfectly in tune with the summer weather: yellow shorts, barely skimming the top of the thighs, a short blue skirt with white polka dots, white T-shirts, and trainers so light and airy they almost lift them clear of the asphalt.
‘Are we going the right way?’ asks Yvonne, clearly anxious.
‘According to the map . . . ' Huda answers, wishing that her friend would have second thoughts about going to the sea, as she had washed her hair the day before yesterday in preparation for the trip. This hair-washing involved an elaborate process of applying oil and allow­ing it to soak in, then washing it, spreading shea butter on it – which felt disgusting – and then rinsing, apply­ing conditioner, wrapping each strand around rollers and sitting under a dryer, then brushing out each strand using a hand dryer. After this, she no longer had curly hair; instead it hung straight down over her shoulders, shiny as an aubergine.
They go off on a footpath, which rises steeply. Huge overhanging trees, and houses, or rather villas, apparently empty, surrounded by neglected gardens, black figs spat­tered on the asphalt, olive trees and dozens of squashes like orange footballs bearing no relation to the soft green plants which produced them. They turn on to a road with high walls on either side, and when there is no sign of the sea, Huda is filled with doubt. She examines the map and is not reassured. They follow the road to the end, and the minute they take another turn, on to a narrow track, they suddenly see the blue line on the horizon. Unable to suppress her delight, Yvonne begins running towards the sea, while Huda follows, worried and apprehensive. But getting to the sea is not as easy as it looks. High rocks, trees, stones and crashing waves stand guard over it. Have they come the wrong way? In their confusion they fail to notice the gap in the wall until a man rides up on his motorbike, dismounts, and climbs through it. Cautiously they follow and find themselves in a rock garden perched right on the seafront. The tension suddenly vanishes from Huda’s mind as she stands confronted by white rocks like huge cacti. In the middle of one rock, that has a flattened top, yellow plants grow, the colour and texture of Yvonne’s hair. Every time the water attacks them, the plants float briefly, then become still and smooth again. Huda secretly envies Yvonne’s hair. They stand together contemplating these plants in surprise.
‘They’re like a woman’s pubic hair,’ says Yvonne.
‘Is yours platinum blonde?’ Huda asks. The rocks are otherworldly and she feels an overwhelming desire to walk on them, especially when she notices a young man and woman strolling over them quite casually.
‘Let’s go on those rocks.’
‘No. Let’s choose a place to sit,’ Yvonne answers at once.
She walks over the red earth, where there are pine trees growing. Huda notices the resin dripping from one tree. They descend along a small path, just a few steps from the sea, and find nature has mixed sea and shore together. Patches of blue water surge between the rocks, with a single outlet connecting them to the wider sea.
Delighted, Huda breathes freely again. ‘It would be difficult to swim here,’ she says. ‘Impossible, in fact. Never mind, we can sunbathe and sleep.’
‘You must be crazy! We’ll swim over the stones and seaweed till we get there.’ Yvonne gestures vaguely with her hand, and Huda understands that ‘there’ means the open sea, just water and gentle waves, not like here on the shore, where it crashes against the rocks, white foam flying, raging.
‘I’ve got a book . . . you go and swim.’
‘Are you joking? Did madam come all the way from Toronto and me from London so we could read? I don’t think so. I’ve got jelly shoes that are great for swimming. You could walk over anything in them.’
Huda chooses a place under the trees but Yvonne wants to sit right beside the sea, in the sun, away from the trees and rocks. They spread out the towels. Yvonne strips down to her bikini, reaches out a hand to help Huda, who is slow to take off her skirt, claiming the zip is stuck. ‘You go first. Anyway I want to climb on the rocks before I swim.’
Yvonne races towards the sea, stumbles on pebbles and sharp stones, scrapes her leg, but is unconcerned. She throws herself into the waves and swims, striking out in the water as if to confirm that she is actually there, in the Mediterranean, the only real sea as far as she is concerned. She wants to bite the water, hold it in her teeth, such is her desire for it. She dives like a duck, rediscovering its intimate spaces, a visitor after a long absence, savouring the taste of it, the coldness, the salti­ness, the silence. Then she stretches one arm out on the surface of the water like a cat, then the other, swimming fast now, so that the sea can’t escape from her, drinking in the air, embracing the water and exhaling, no longer seeing anything but the colour blue mixing the sky and sea together. She closes her eyes as if she has finally come home after a long journey

Reading Group Guide

The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Occasional Virgin, a remarkable novel about religion, family, love, and faith. These questions as may invoke lively discussion, so feel free to use these topics as guidelines only, and let your meeting take its own course.

1. Describe the structure of The Occasional Virgin. Why does the author separate the novel into two distinct parts? How are the parts similar and different? How do the different locales change the tone of the story?

2. Yvonne and Huda are on vacation in the Italian Riviera in the first half and then both working in London in the second. Discuss why the setting might have allowed them to act differently than they might have acted at home.

3. Both Yvonne and Huda spent their childhoods in Lebanon; Yvonne raised in a Christian family in a northern seaside town and Huda in a Muslim family in Beirut. Compare their families and their experiences. How have their childhoods influenced the women they are today?

4. Both women had religious restrictions placed on them when they were girls. Discuss how these restrictions might have affected their childhoods, and how it might have affected the women they became.

5. Does the novel purposely and actively dispel any stereotypes of Arab women?

6. How do Lebanon and the past seep into the novel? How did the Lebanese Civil War affect the women and their families? “Death was around her, searching for new victims every day” (p. 127).

7. Why do you think al-Shaykh choose One Thousand and One Nights for Huda’s play? How are both One Thousand and One Nights and The Occasional Virgin about strong women trying to survive in the world despite societal, religious and gender restrictions?

8. How are One Thousand and One Nights and The Occasional Virgin farcical and surreal in certain ways, at certain times?

9. How does the ending of the novel hint at One Thousand and One Nights, “Until tomorrow then” (p.221). What do you think happens at the end of The Occasional Virgin? Will the women see Hisham again?

10. “Learning to swim was what confirmed her existence” (p. 21). Swimming and the sea (and swimming pools) are important in the novel. The two women have different relationships and experiences with this activity. How is swimming a metaphor in the novel? What does it represent?

11. Both Yvonne and Huda are immigrants. How does this play into the novel? Do they ever get over their feelings of displacement and nostalgia for Lebanon?

12. At the restaurant, the women’s conversation with Hisham’s friends is different from the men’s conversation. How do they differ?

13. “As far back as I can remember I’ve used lies and tricks as weapons,” Huda tells herself (p. 33). The women lie to various men in the novel, but not to each other. Why?

14. Why are the two women so intrigued by Hisham? After seeing Hisham in action at the Speakers’ Corner, why does Huda decide to go to the demonstration to look for him?

15. After seeing the “strawberry” poster in Yvonne’s apartment, Huda’s theatrical side is piqued. Do you think that is the moment she plans to seduce Hisham? What other times seem likely?

16. Why do Yvonne and Huda both pursue Hisham? Is it theatrical, a game, a competition, or something else? Are they really attracted to him or are they trying to expose his hypocrisy?

17. Why does Huda want “to have her revenge on” Hisham (p. 112)? Does she achieve it? How?

18. Compare and contrast Huda’s view of Islam and the Quran to Hisham’s. “For her, the Quran is an amazing riddle, conversing with her, making her contemplate and marvel, scaring her, but also entertaining her like a good book” (p. 95). “He is the soul of piety and seriousness, rigid as a steel box” (p. 118).

19. Describe the friendship between Yvonne and Huda. What binds them together?

20. What do you think of the provocative title and how does it connect to the storyline?

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