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by Elif Shafak

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-374-25357-9
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A first English translation from Turkish author Shafak follows the lives of three foreign students in Boston to explore community and alienation while playing with ideas about language, religion, and culture.

Arriving from Turkey to work on his Ph.D. in political science, Omer moves into a house with Piyu, a Spanish dental student, and Abed, a Moroccan studying biotechnology. Unlike the Catholic, hot-chocolate-drinking Piyu and the Moslem, mint-tea-drinking Abed, who both remain devout, Omer, who drinks coffee and liquor and listens to American music nonstop, no longer practices Islam. Despite their differences in culture and language, the three men’s outsider status (as well as their common reliance on English as a second language) binds them together while each struggles to find where he resides in spirit. They play word games and take care of their dog. They eat wonderful meals prepared by Piyu’s Mexican-American girlfriend Alegre, a secret bulimic whose gorging and disgorging is described in painful detail. Alegre widens their social circle by adding Waspy Debra Ellen Thompson from her eating disorders therapy group and Debra’s former lover Gail, half-Jewish and highly neurotic, with whom Debra runs a candy business, Squirmy Spirit Chocolates (an odd inconsistency, since they are vegans, and the chocolates described sound buttery rich). Abed’s mother comes to visit, bringing a disappointing letter from his Moroccan girlfriend, and Abed is surprised how well she adjusts to his American friends. In fact, she suggests that Abed marry Gail. Instead, Omer and Gail fall in love, a union of Omer’s internal anger and Gail’s deep sadness. They marry, but Gail’s depression will conquer their connection. Throughout, the characters talk about philosophy and sociology, although they skirt thornier political issues, while Shafak’s use of language veers from masterful to awkwardly convoluted.

Sometimes lively and provocative, but frequently as pretentious as Gail’s spiritually shaped chocolates.