Length: 225 pages
This was a stark change from the sort of books that I usually read, but it got to jump ahead of my queue on account of being suggested to me by a friend. I didn't know what to expect going into it, but the premise of a book about someone reading a manuscript sent blindly to a literary agent (with said manuscript also being presented in the book) was interesting enough to get me started, and the actual content was good enough to keep me going.
Granted, my personal experience is that a blind submission like that won't actually get read, but hey, it's fiction.
There are two plots, as one would expect. One, in the present, is about boring housewife Ella reading the manuscript and how it affects her life. This is the boring plot that nobody is likely to really care about. The second, set as the Show Within A Show, is a historical fiction retelling of the relationship between the famed scholar/mystic/preacher/poet Rumi and the wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz. Now, I'll admit that, prior to reading this book, I only knew of Rumi in a vague way without any real knowledge of his works, and I didn't even know that Shams was a real person. The way that Shams is presented is as such a ridiculous Mary Sue (bordering on Ubermensch qualities, with how much he's able to warp any situation to befit a story related to his forty rules of love) that I was convinced that he was a meant to be a self-insert for the author of the manuscript, Aziz Zahara, particularly given Aziz's own personality and appearance. But no, apparently, Shams was a real person, and the actual nature of his relationship with Rumi is a point of much speculation and controversy to this day. Good to know.
Incidentally, Şafak bypasses that by just not going into any details about what they did in private aside from a little dialogue, though the Plot Parallel implies that it wasn't sexual. In any case, readers are open to form whichever opinion they want about it, and either way, it's really irrelevant to the book.
Due to the way that the book is structured, I'll try to look at the purely fictional Ella content and the historical fiction content separately.
For the Ella content, it manages to feel like it's simultaneously not there and yet overexposed. All told, there are twenty-six Ella chapters, out of a total of ninety-seven. While the early parts switch between Ella and the manuscript repeatedly, Ella's plot fades out somewhat as the book gets further along. At the same time, though, Ella herself is kind of a prissy bitch who's character development comes across less as becoming enlightened by The Power of Love and more as trading an addiction to predictability and conformity used to mask her own lack of fulfillment for a perfidious fling to give a way of filling the void in herself. While Ella's content takes up only about a quarter of the book, it's never actually interesting on its own merits. Rather, it ranges from being annoying to being mildly repulsive, with a decent chunk of it just feeling like filler that could've been omitted without any problems. Thus, it's both easy to forget about her at times and never welcome when she does show up.
The historical fiction content is what really carries the book. Told from a variety of first-person narrative perspectives, it starts out with Shams receiving guidance from God on how to fulfill his purpose in life, progressed to his time living in Konya with Rumi, and ultimately concludes with wrapping up what Rumi did after the assassination of Shams. In and of itself, this is all well and good, and I wouldn't be surprised if many of the characters and their interactions did have some historical basis. The floating narrative perspective is also appreciated, since really, Shams himself is probably the most annoying character in the book, so sticking with his point of view for the entire time would've been insufferable.
See, Shams used his time as a wandering dervish to come up with forty rules of love, in addition to picking up a fuckton of stories related to them. Whenever there's any sort of interaction between Shams and another character, you can almost guarantee that it'll end with Shams either telling a little story that's suspiciously applicable to the current situation, quoting one of his rules of love (which are mostly all variations on saying "nothing is as important as the pursuit of love in all its forms, no matter the consequences" and/or "all hardships are love in disguise, so just look harder for the secret love behind them"), or doing both. The first few times, it was cute, but it got on my nerves pretty quickly. As if this wasn't enough, though, Shams also has super powers (even if we discount his ability to seemingly read people's minds as just having incredible insight into how other people think, he can still see through doors and walls, throw books into water without getting them wet, and perform other supernatural feats). Really, the wonder isn't that there were people who reacted to him with hate and hostility, it's that he didn't piss them off enough to get himself killed sooner than he did (oh, except that he was apparently also a master fighter who was able to hold off six assailants by himself at one point, because of course he was). I think that Şafak was trying to make him seem like a wonderful person who'd ascended beyond the limits of mundane life, but he really comes off more as a smug hippy with magic.
He didn't even actually share forty rules by the end of the book, either.
The other characters in the historical fiction content, on the other hand, were mostly enjoyable, because they both seemed like real people (aside from one or two cases of pure comic relief who didn't really fit in) and participated in an interesting plot. Prior to the arrival of Shams in Konya, Rumi was an intellectual idol for the people. After Shams enters his life, though, Rumi throws away all of that to become a hippy himself, and the plot is mostly about the friction that this causes with his family, friends, colleagues, and the community at large. I took it as an intriguing sociological case study in the impacts of a sudden change in the local power structure. In all honestly, I don't think that's what Şafak intended for it to be, but it worked for me when viewed through that perspective.
That leads me to the quandary that I faced in trying to give a rating for this book. On the one hand, of the four main characters, the only one I still liked by the end of the book was Rumi. One of the plots did nothing to draw me in aside from the premise that it used for introducing the other plot. While the book did give some commendable lessons about the virtues of practicing forgiveness and tolerance instead of reacting with hostility or self-pity when faced with difficulties, they were presented with all the elegance and tact of a squirrel going through a bowl of walnuts (for those who've never had the experience of cleaning up after that, it's probably messier than you're imagining it'd be). On the other hand, the second plot was legitimately enjoyable, even despite the presence of Shams, and while I value the entertainment that I get out of book more than any Aesops, I suppose there's a case to be made that Some Anvils Need To Be Dropped. In the end, I did enjoy reading it, so I had to give it something higher than a C, but I didn't think it was actually a good book, so I had to give it something lower than a B. I've flipped between the two options that that left at least three times just while writing this review. Ultimately, I can't bring myself to recommend this book to others without having some idea that they'd be interested in it, so I went with the lower option.
Length: 225 pages