Elif Shafak has written a novel that is one-third awful and two-thirds great. Frustrating? You bet. There are glimpses here of genuinely transcendent storytelling, an author who has found both a subject that elicits passion and an approach to that subject that elevates it into something like art. Unfortunately, the hackneyed one-third of the book so thoroughly undermines the rest as to make reading it unrewarding.
The Forty Rules of Love is a novel about Rumi, the 13th-century Turkish preacher and poet who meets his muse in the form of a wandering dervish, an Islamic mystic named Shams of Tabriz. Shams is a homeless mendicant who interprets the Qur’an as a text of love and forgiveness—then as now, a reading that doesn’t always meet with approval from self-appointed guardians of righteousness. He falls in with Rumi almost as if destined; in fact, both men have no doubt that it was destined. Much of the story is told from Shams’s point of view, as his wanderings take him from Baghdad to the city of Konya, where Rumi has already gained a reputation as a powerful preacher and holy man.
This is all good; very good in fact. Shafak evokes medieval Turkey with brisk efficiency, moving the action through a series of well-delineated voices—dervishes and townspeople, sinner and beggars and zealots and prostitutes. Rumi’s wife and sons have their voices too, and some of the family grow increasingly alienated as Shams and Rumi develop an ever deeper friendship.
But that’s not the only part of this novel. The Forty Rules of Love is also the story of Ella, a 40-ish Jewish housewife and mother of three living in Northampton, Massachusetts, whose present-day story is woven in among the strands of the historical narrative. Ella seems to have it all—family, security, a cushy life—but inside she is bored with her husband, her life and herself. She takes a job as a reader of manuscripts for a literary agency, and her first manuscript is a novel called Sweet Blasphemy, concerning the poet Rumi and his muse, Shams of Tabriz. This fictional manuscript turns out the be the historical part of the novel that the reader is reading him/herself.
The problem with The Forty Rules of Love is not that two disparate storylines are interweaved; it’s that the present-day narrative is so horrendously clunky in its execution that it jars against the rest of the book. Unlike the historical storyline, Ella’s narrative is limited to one point of view—hers—and it’s a fairly dull place to be. Shafak seems afraid that the reader won’t understand just how barren Ella’s life is, so she lays it out with can’t-miss-it overtness: regarding her husband’s infidelity, we are told that “Ella blamed herself for the change. But then again, ‘guilt’ was Ella Rubenstein’s middle name.” Soon after, the narrator helpfully points out that “despite her ability to keep a stiff upper lip, deep inside she longed for love.”
Another author would have taken care to show scenes in which these feelings were evident, but in Ella’s storyline, Shafak never misses a chance to make something obvious where understatement would work better. When Ella receives the manuscript of Sweet Blasphemy, the author wants to be sure that we understand that this book will change Ella’s life. So the narrator tells us, “Little did she know that this was not going to be just any book, but the book that changed her life.” Everybody get that? Pay attention, kids!
Given this ham-fisted setup, it comes as no surprise whatsoever that Ella undergoes a profound transformation, and that the nature of that transformation is utterly predictable. As the story progresses, Ella initiates an email correspondence with the author whose manuscript she is reading (mmm—not sure you’re supposed to do that). No points for guessing where the relationship leads. If in doubt, check those quotes in the previous paragraph.
What makes this doubly frustrating is that the historical portions of the book are conveyed with such skill. Shafak proves able at juggling narrators and descriptions both physical and psychological. She is adept at building suspense and cultivating sympathy for her characters, and she echoes contemporary debate within Islam when the zealot criticizes the dervishes’ mysticism: “As far as the Sufis are concerned, the holy Qur’an is replete with obscure symbols and layered allusions, each of which ought to be interpreted in a mystic way. So they… look out for veiled references in the text, doing everything in their power to avoid reading God’s message, plain and clear.” Before long, this debate between the literal and metaphorical interpretations of religion will have significant consequences for all concerned.
Yet when it comes to the bored-soccer-mom storyline, all this skill goes out the window. Ultimately, there is too much here that falls flat, and not enough that sings. Maybe the historical narrative on its own wouldn’t have been sufficient to build a compelling story, and maybe Shafak should be commended for her attempt to illustrate how and why Rumi continues to exert such a powerful hold over many readers even today. Her attempts to create a contemporary narrative, however, are unconvincing and clumsy.