I always love to read about a book within a book and so ‘The 40 rules of Love’ by Elif Shafak with its parallel narratives started off so promisingly. The contemporary story is about an unhappily married Jewish homemaker named Ella living in Northampton, USA. The second narrative of this novel, ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ is actually about the wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz, who is a mystic Sufi and Jalaluddin Rumi, the now famous Sufi scholar.
The fact that the novel catapults the reader from past into the present and vice versa, from the world of Shams of Tabriz in 13th century Turkey to the world of Ella Rubenstein in 21st America, is deeply symbolic. The fluidity gives the novel a surreal timeless quality, where even the characters from the 13th century seem relatable today. This is where Shafak is brilliant, for this is an underlying message that Rumi and Tabriz’s message of love is not and cannot be limited to encapsulations of time and space.
Bear with my contrived analogy but if Shafaks’ works (the 3 that I have read) were compared to a box of Turkish Delights the delicious and beautifully crafted ‘Three Daughters of Eve’ would remain my favorite while ‘The 40 Rules…’ will have to come in third place after ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’. Unlike the historical storyline, Ella’s narrative is limited to one point of view—hers—and it’s a fairly dull place to be in repeatedly. Ella’s story proved to be too predictable and her transformation almost expected, because Shafak rarely allows you to see her life from any other vantage point. When you compare it to the multiple voices you hear in in the Konya pages, you begin to see that as a disadvantage.
That being said, the novel is a mastery of words – whether thinly veiled symbols, masterful wordplay, clunky dialogue or fat clichés… the pages are a Bibliophiles delight and Shafak’s attempt to illustrate how and why Rumi continues to exert such a powerful hold over many readers even today is skillful and beautiful.
Now that I am done reading the novel, it’s just a matter of time before I pick up the complete works of the great Rumi and perhaps some more of Shafak herself who is undoubtedly my favorite author this summer.
Eight books down…I think I might just have enough time for one more.