The bestselling, controversial Turkish author (Bastard of Istanbul, 2007, etc.) enfolds a historical narrative about a Sufi poet within the contemporary tale of a discontented Massachusetts housewife.
With her daughter in college and her twins in high school, Ella Rubinstein has gone back to work as a reader for a Boston literary agent. She accepts the lack of passion in her marriage to a philandering dentist—this unfortunate stereotype is typical of Shafak’s tin ear where Americans are concerned—until her first reading assignment forces her to reexamine her complacency. It’s a manuscript entitled Sweet Blasphemy, which describes the 13th-century friendship between Rumi, a respected Muslim scholar, and Shams, a wandering dervish who became his soul mate. Soon Ella is carrying on an e-mail correspondence of growing intensity with the manuscript’s author, Craig, a Scot who found Sufism after a long period of personal crisis. Craig and Ella are soul mates too, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s cute. It’s hard to care about Ella, who considers her younger daughter’s eating disorder a distraction from her pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. The energy, complexity and empathy found in Shafak’s previous work are evident only in the sections of the text devoted to Rumi. He suffers humiliations from Shams, a gifted mystic but far from perfect human being who cuts him off from his family and followers, but Rumi appreciates the deeper meaning behind the tests Shams sets for him. When Shams is murdered with the help of Rumi’s jealous son, Rumi’s grief blossoms into great poetry still beloved today. In the parallel present, Ella leaves her family to follow Craig to Turkey, knowing he has terminal cancer. His death only deepens her commitment to her personal quest, and she heads to Amsterdam, where he had lived. After all, the kids can always visit.
Shafak should have dropped Ella’s story, with its preachy spiritual ruminations, and stuck to Rumi’s odyssey, which opens a window into a world Westerners know little about.