SNAP BOOK REVIEW: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Marks out of ten – TWO

Who Would Play The Lead Character in a Movie:
Ella – Reese Witherspoon (with quite a lot of hair and make up work)

Having heard the author of this novel in discussion on the World Service’s World Bookclub, I felt hugely compelled to get involved in The Forty Rules of Love. Whilst the book is well written and clearly, a lot of thought has gone into its research and construction, the end result is – simply – disappointing. Below, we explore why.

The Forty Rules of Love. Ultimately, a disappointment to us (but just us; give it a whirl!)

This book is a novel that is – essentially – about another novel. Forty-something Bostonian Ella has led a solid life to date. She’s the mother of three children, she turns a blind eye to her husband’s infidelities, and she is an excellent cook. (We really mean that – her average weekday supper is a three course affair.) She is a reader for a Literary Agency, and one day, a manuscript arrives that focuses on a fictional interpretation of the relationship between infamous mystic, Rumi, and his mentor, Shams of Tabriz. Their story is legendary within Middle Eastern philosophy, but therein – for me – was my issue with the novel. TFRoL, you see, claims to be a novel set in America in 2008. But the truth is that the readers read a novel set in the 13th century, about two respected heavyweights of Middle Eastern mysticism. As Rumi and Shams intellectually spa, their friendship becomes one of focus, unique dedication, and singular love for one another. It is the reactions of characters in the immediate environment, that allow the story to progress, through different viewpoints (i.e. Rumi’s wife, his children, a local brothel employee, a few of her clients, etc etc.) And of course, we also flashback to Ella, our original housewife, because she has developed an email relationship with the novels author, and one that in its ease and instinctive warmth, hints at mirroring that of Shams and Rumi.

Alternative cover for this book.

Is it a great novel? For me, sadly no; but that is not to say it may not measure up for other readers. The writing is polished and, for a commercial fiction novel, glides along the page. I couldn’t label it as great personally as throughout, I felt I was missing ‘something’. To follow in the same vein, I can see how Penguin US must have lit up with joy when this manuscript came in: This had the potential to be an important book, but it’s not. The book assumes far too much existing knowledge of Rumi, of Shams, and of Middle Eastern history. Without that it is a story alone, with no huge resonance. I even felt, amongst the voice of the multi-character narratives, that the actual 40 Rules of Love devised by Shams, were lost in the book; key and inspiring rules seem to slump in the corner. It’s such a pity, as if these had sung out more vividly, the book could lay claim to having a vital spot on any self-respecting bookshelf.

Unfortunately for me, I was seeking a novel that would transport me if not to Massachusetts, than to a fragrant, vibrant Middle East, alive with the thrills and spills of intellectual discovery and a civilisation in a hugely creative era. But instead, the book descended into a dull hum of voices that simply lacked any aspect of entertainment. Perhaps, as mentioned before, if you can bring a ready-made knowledge of Persian history to the book, you’ll be in an excellent position to enjoy it and for it to hold a legacy for you. Anyone who has studied Shams and Rumi, may comprehend the contemporary thread of the novel and its thirteenth century parallels. But for me? Such delicacy was far too gentle to have an impact at all, and this thread that could have been so sharp and refreshing, was simply a waft of an idea.

I thank the author regardless, as their appearance on World Bookclub alone was a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening audio experience. Shafak is an accomplished and intelligent woman, who takes her role as an author seriously, and for that, we salute her. For us though, the book itself left much to be desired.

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