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I was excited to find a book about Kuwait, and the first couple of chapters sucked me in. Unfortunately, what followed was a nearly plot-free slog through the mundane lives of Americans temporarily residing in the country, with a few supporting characters adding local color.Small Kingdoms is advertised as a book about a diverse group of people living in mid-1990’s Kuwait who come together to rescue an abused maid. While perhaps technically true, this is quite misleading. First, there are four main characters from whose perspectives we view events (in order by the amount of page time they get): Theo, a newly-arrived American doctor; Kit, a newly-arrived American housewife and mother, accompanying her businessman husband; Mufeeda, a rich Kuwaiti woman; and Emmanuella, Mufeeda’s teenage Indian cook. The non-Americans get only about 100 pages of this 344-page book, leaving the vast majority to Theo and Kit.And Kit’s and Theo’s plotlines are stories that could be found in any number of books set in the contemporary U.S. Kit’s chapters are mostly about her crippling timidity. Her problems include things like street vendors frequently buzzing up.... which is a problem because she’s not assertive enough to convince them she doesn’t want anything.... but she doesn’t tell her husband, because he’d just tell her to hire a maid.... which is a problem because she’s nervous about interviewing maids. Theo’s plotline is mostly about an affair with an Arab woman, and about all the annoying complications he faces working in a Kuwaiti public hospital: like being given a tiny office full of other people’s boxes and arguing with his boss about whether they should bother to take patients’ blood pressure. (Granted, there’s also some worry about “Saddam” invading again, but readers already know he won’t.) Sound riveting yet?And even for what they are, these plotlines are underdeveloped. We see a lot of Kit’s neuroses and the problems in her marriage, for instance, but never learn why she’s so non-functional or how she and her husband Jack got together in the first place.So about that abused maid, Santana: she’s anything but a focus of the plot. Indeed, she only appears in a couple of scenes, and only toward the end of the book does anyone besides Emmanuella even become aware of her situation. Santana’s role in the book is to provide a climax and some social relevance in a book that otherwise documents the Americans’ lives. Admittedly, part of my frustration with this book is that I was hoping for a window into Kuwaiti life and culture. Instead, this book provides an expat’s view of the country; it’s telling that the only local family whose inner workings we see (if only briefly) is one that regularly opens its doors to American guests. The author has a foreign visitor’s eye for physical details--like tiny washing machines in kitchens for the towels, and lawnmowers for sale at Ace Hardware even though nobody has grass--but not a true novelist’s eye for what makes a society tick. When I pick up a book about a foreign country, I want to read about that country. Not about Americans going into crisis mode because they forgot to bring the Christmas decorations. Some asides about how badly Kuwaitis treat poor immigrant workers dont change the overall tenor of that story. And there’s this Americans-to-the-rescue thing going on. True, Theo and Kit do only what we’d expect from good citizens, but there’s something disingenuous about juxtaposing the best of one society with some of the worst facets of another. There’s certainly no mention here of how immigrant workers are treated in the U.S., and the book only grudgingly admits that domestic violence happens here too. Americans in this book are sometimes rude or oblivious, but never the type to take advantage of their power.In the end, this book read as if the author tried to turn her own experience living abroad into a novel, and the result is entirely forgettable. I give two stars rather than one because it was readable, the writing style and character development were at least minimally competent although not exceptional, and I never felt the urge to throw the book at a wall. But there have to be better books out there about Kuwait.

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