In case you were wondering: it's NOT some sort of wacky dating manual. It's a novel.
My Turkish friend Güner was in raptures over this book by Turkish author Elif Şafak - even to the point that she admitted she had developed a tiny crush on one of the main characters, Shams of Tabriz (we won't tell her husband Ali). She urged me to buy an English copy and I'm glad she did. It was an interesting read.
The word 'interesting' obviously has several meanings. People frequently use it when they're not overly impressed by something but don't want to sound too dismissive (I've been known to do that too!). I'm not using interesting in that sense of the word here, but the book did have some aspects that appealed to me a bit less. On the other hand, it is a well-written book and some of its content also came to me at just the right moment.
This is a book with a story within a story. Ella Rubinstein is a house wife who has been trying to convince herself for some time that she really has a lot to be thankful for - a (well-to-do) husband, three children and a comfortable home. But something is lacking in her life and most definitely in her relationship with her husband David. She takes a job as a reader for a publisher and her first assignment is to read a novel by a new author, Aziz Z. Zahara (who turns out to be Scottish - you didn't see that one coming did you?).
The book tells the story of the renowned Sufi mystic Rumi whose life and perceptions change forever when wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz and his forty rules of love come into his life. Rumi and Shams become inseparable companions but their spiritual love for each other does much to upset those close to them, let alone the establishment in 13th century Konya in Anatolia, Turkey.
Ella has only just started reading the book, called 'Sweet Blasphemy', when she decides to find out more about the author - and ends up corresponding with him. And as you would have it, her life will also never be the same again after that.
Each chapter of the book is told from the view point of one of its (many) characters. This could have been distracting, but I have to say it adds to the atmosphere of the whole. The 13th century story in particular really comes alive through this. It is a good introduction to the life and times of Rumi, whose poems I've always loved. Elif Şafak knows how to tell a story. And yet, in spite of that, some of the characters remained two-dimensional to me. The modern time story of Ella and Aziz somehow fails to convince me, it lacks a certain depth. It has more than a hint of chick-lit for grown-ups about it. Which is perfectly fine, it's just that the story falls a bit flat. It's as if the author poured all her inspiration into the 13th century story-line and characters and had too little left to make these two really come to life.
And then of course there's the all-consuming love between Rumi and Shams. It would have moved me more if they hadn't shown, in my perception at least, an extraordinary lack of compassion for the people closest to them. Sometimes things that annoy you tell you something about yourself and I know that I could often do with a touch more 'detachment' - but it feels as if to Rumi and Shams 'the others' don't seem to really matter anymore. The cold indifference some of their supposed loved ones are treated with doesn't just border on cruelty in my eyes. So no, I did not develop a crush for Shams myself. Even though he does do a lot of good deeds and does show many good traits in the book that do endear him to you. Same goes for Rumi.
Still I have to say this book touched me. I began to really feel for some of the secondary characters like Desert Rose the Harlot, Suleiman the Drunkard, Rumi's wife Kerra and his adopted daughter Kimya. I even began to feel for his son Aladdin - and he's not the most likable character in there.
Over to Shams' forty rules. At times the way another one of them is introduced in the book comes across as a bit, well, contrived, but there are some things in there that do really ring true. Without it sounding like just another self-help manual. Some of the rules just happened to strike a chord with me.
All in all, I enjoyed reading this book. Has anyone else read it? I'd love to hear what you thought of it.
Oh and did I already mention I LOVE the cover?