The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love, is a very interesting novel.
Equally a political and romantic thriller, at times a real page-turner, it gets you intimately involved in the dire situation in today's Syria as well as in the romantic entanglements of its mostly New-York based characters--whose entanglements just might determine the fate of that dire situation in Syria. Along the way it introduces a really important idea that somehow has not been part of the contemporary discussion, yet (as the character espousing it will quickly convince you) ought to be: the creation of a Christian state in the heart of the Middle East. And yes, this same character urges his incredulous Muslim and Arab followers to accept, the lone Jewish State in the world just might be the appropriate inspiration and model for that state, not to mention a key ally.
The novel opens in Syria, as a beautiful, young (and virginal) Syrian Christian teenager named Anissa just manages to escape the slaughter of her family at the hands of Islamist rebels. Her father's last words fixed in her head--his plea that she leave her family behind to get out and help her people by advancing herself--the young refugee makes her way to New York and wins a scholarship to Columbia University. There she meets Michael Kassab, a charismatic graduate student who is not only a Syrian Christian like her, but actively advocating for their oppressed and threatened people. It is his dream to create the Christian state mentioned above, and he works tirelessly toward that end. Not surprisingly, Anissa soon falls under his spell--and he under hers.
But not so fast, for there is also Julien Morales, brilliant Columbia professor of psychology and economics, wealthy-beyond-description manager of a top-tier hedge fund, and all around playboy who soon casts a competing spell over Anissa--and she upon him. Julien is a complicated fellow, with dark secrets in his past leaving him veering between hedonistic pursuits, existential despair, and glimmers of redemption. Despite having had more women than he can count or recount to his therapist he finds himself transfixed on the young, beautiful Syrian virgin who isn't merely his student but, it turns out, the very best student in his notoriously demanding class.
Anissa is torn. Michael seems to be her soul-mate and is dedicated to the highest ideals, rescuing his people from murderous oppression and founding a safe haven state for them. But Julien is a genius, wealthy, powerful, whose attentions suggest there may be a high-salaried place for her at his hedge fund come summer. And then there are her people, her family, the dying Arab Christians left behind making last-ditch efforts to save themselves from the Islamist advance ...
And then there is a way they all come together for her.
Michael needs money, a lot of it, to bring supplies to those in emergency need, to begin organizing people toward the creation of the Christian state. (The famous quote from Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, readily comes to mind here even before Michael himself quotes it: "If you will it, it is no dream.") Julien has money, loads of it, more than he knows what to do with, and he has fallen under the spell of the brilliant beautiful Syrian virgin. And Anissa, pure unspoiled unblemished Anissa, has perhaps one thing that Julien ultimately wants, that he might be willing to pay dearly for ...
Instead of becoming a steamy potboiler, however, the novel's deepest and most gripping moments arise precisely here, toward the end, as Annisa wrestles with difficult questions, with "indecent proposals," that no 18-year old should have to wrestle with. Her duties to her family, her people; her father's last words; her traditional values, which include preserving her virginity for her future husband; her attraction to Michael, who just might be that future husband, and his ideals; but the need for money, not for herself but for the most noble of causes, to fulfill her duties to her people, to help create that dream of a Christian state, and there is Julien willing to part with enormous sums if she will just--
There is much of interest in The Syrian Virgin. Zack Love has a remarkable knack for interweaving bigger, deeper questions with more mundane ones, the world-changing political ideas with almost ordinary romantic dilemmas--or at least as ordinary as romantic dilemmas between such powerful and brilliant characters as these can be. You feel great sympathy for Anissa from the start as Love conveys with devastating power the terrifying tragedy which is contemporary Syria and leaves you gasping for air as Anissa escapes her family's deadly fate. With a tender touch Love has you rooting for her as she starts her new life, and you feel her rising energy as she settles into that new life. But then, of course, she cannot escape her past fully, and you feel the power of family and duty as Anissa's future choices all connect back to her past experiences. As her life intertwines with the competing forces of Michael and Julien, her romantic dilemmas become political, philosophical.
This is no ordinary novel. As much about ideas as about passion, as insightful about the situation in the Middle East as about sexual dynamics, it offers something for everyone.
An earlier version of this review appeared in The Algemeiner.