Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Book Review of Moroccan Roll by Steven Stanley

2 Stars out of 5

Moroccan Roll follows the lives of six American and French teachers working at a government run school in Ain El Qamar, Morocco. The story primarily focuses on the frustrating attempts of these twenty-something teachers to satisfy their lust and find love while also trying to assimilate into an unfamiliar culture.
There is Dave, a gay man who falls in love with one of his students, Lateef, who just happens to be straight. And Janna, a woman who had an affair with a Moroccan student, then turns to drugs after he dumps her. And Kevin, who tries to forget the tragic death of his male lover back in the states, by finding comfort with a Moroccan man who is unable to return his affections. And Claudette, the forty-something French woman who is losing her looks and is desperate to prove to herself that she still has her charms. And, of course, Marcie, who falls head over heals for the local French playboy who beds any woman at the drop of a hat.
Then there is a host of supporting characters, including a power hungry and tyrannical school principle, a French couple who enjoy an “open” relationship, and a young student who stalks one of his teachers.

I found a few positive aspects to this story. The author seems to have an in-depth knowledge of Moroccan culture, and the story is often witty. That said, I had a list of issues with this novel, the main one being that the style of storytelling is to tell, tell, tell, and show very little. Rather than the author TELLing me that the lamb dish was delectable, savory, and delicious, I want him to SHOW me the character wolfing it down, sucking the burnt fat from his fingers, then licking the plate clean. Rather than TELLing me Dave loves Lateef, SHOW how tense Dave gets any time Lateef is in the same room, or how Dave stammers every time Lateef looks him in the eye. Letting the reader figure out a few things for him or herself is what engages the reader in the story. I felt like this story was being spoon fed to me, with no opportunities to feel engaged with the plot. This made the writing, in my opinion, feel amateurish.

The lion’s share of the conflict for each of these main characters had to do solely with their romantic troubles, that is, each character’s obsession with getting laid, or in some cases, dealing with unrequited love. I assumed that a group of French and American teachers, who found themselves in Morocco in the seventies, would have numerous issues adjusting to a rich and unfamiliar culture. But to my disappointment, those types of issue were mostly ignored and the story focused on these characters thrashing about over unreturned love. This gave each character a one-dimensional feel, and because of that, I never became interested in any of their situations.

Stanley does have a detailed knowledge of Moroccan culture, but rather than painting rich and exotic scenes, he often gives vague descriptions like: “The sight of wagons loaded with fresh fruit and vegetables was evidence that this was not yet a culture whose food was polluted with chemical preservatives and additives. Nor was the air impossible to breathe. Besides all this, there was also the special feeling a foreigner got whenever he observed the color and exoticness of Ain El Qamar, evident in its architecture, in the dress of its inhabitants, and the language they spoke.”
This kind of description tells me nothing. I wanted to know what kind of fruit and vegetables, and what kind of wagons for that matter. And what did the architecture look like? How did the air smell? How did the locals dress? What did the language sound like? Stanley seldom paints enough of a picture that I could imagine being there, which I found disappointing.

Over the last ten years I have traveled to over forty countries, and Morocco is one of my favorite destinations. I find the people and the culture engaging and charming, and the food is marvelous, so I came to this novel with high expectations, hoping that it would ignite all those wonderful memories. But sadly, I didn’t feel a spark of anything except disappointment. This is not a story that I can honestly recommend.

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