The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

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The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: A compelling tale of mysticism, love and intrigue in 13th century Turkey, encapsulated in a 21st-century journey of awakening emotion. Gorgeously real.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 358 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0670918737

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This is the sixth novel from best-selling Turkish author, Elif Shafak. Set in twelfth-century Anatolia, two famous characters from Islamic history meet in a gorgeously real world. A delicate contemporary US love story is wrapped around the rich, meaty historical fiction. Don't be misled by the dodgy-sounding title!

During the violent fall of the Byzantine Empire, when Crusaders threatened one end of Anatolia and Genghis Khan the other, a seminal meeting took place at Konya. Shams-I Tabrizi was a wandering dervish, a seeker of universal spirituality on the mystical path of the Sufi order. In 1244, Shams met the distinguished Islamic scholar Jalad ad-Din Rumi. Their intellectual, spiritual and emotional bond developed so strongly that it changed Rumi's spiritual path forever. Under Shams' unconventional tutelage, Rumi developed into a mystic, poet and advocate of universal love.

Unfortunately, the exclusivity of their relationship alienated some of the people closest to them. In addition, the brilliant, mercurial Shams made a point of challenging everyone he met. Even under the protection of the powerful Rumi, his scathing tongue built him a raft of enemies who were determined to annihilate his dangerous heresies. Tension builds as the tragic outcome is repeatedly foretold by the multiple voices telling the story.

A deep spiritual relationship doesn't seem a promising subject for readers in a largely secular society, but I found the story highly compelling. Not that I know anything whatsoever about medieval Turkey, but I was struck by the realism of the writing. No fluffiness in this historical fiction: the smells of grease and spices, the heat of blood and sweat and the cold viciousness of a less-civilized people were totally convincing. My only criticism of the book is that I disliked the use of modern idioms to represent the speech of a bygone culture, but that is just my personal taste.

It transpires that the story has been written by Aziz Z Zahara, an erstwhile Scot and professional photographer. Long ago Aziz converted to Islam and became a present-day Sufi. His manuscript is sent for review to Ella Rubinstein in Northampton, Massachusetts. Intrigued by the ideas presented in the forty rules, Ella emails Aziz, and an internet flirtation fires up into a life-changing affair.

At the start of the novel, Ella believes that love and passion are inevitable casualties of long and stable family life. Twenty years of marriage have given her an everyday steeped in affluent domesticity, as well as a rational outlook which precludes much emotion for her husband other than companionship. Ella lives for the family. One of her few independent interests is haute cuisine; even this turns out to be recipes for elaborate family meals. Food this sophisticated is a decorative art form but gives pleasure without nourishing the spirit, a metaphor illustrating Ella's whole emotional life.

The American family idyll Ella has carefully nurtured is smashed as she reads Aziz' emails, for Aziz, like Shams, believes that love is the ultimate connection in life. Ella doesn't perceive any danger until far too late to integrate her fast-changing ideas into her existing family framework. Tension grows as both husband and wife realize that the missing element of love is essential to their marriage's survival.

The two stories interpolate, cleverly hiking up the tension on both sides. At one point Ella asks Aziz if he is the model for Shams, which Aziz denies. Their point of similarity is that both inspire fiery and devoted love although Aziz is more self-contained and less flamboyant than Shams. Both have accepted their tragic destinies.

As Westerners, we nod at romantic love, sexual relationships and intellectual connectivity but are far less comfortable with emotional and spiritual relationships. It's refreshing to read a book written from a completely different start point, where the reader is expected to value different forms of love equally.

Don't ask yourself what kind of love you should seek, spiritual or material, divine or mundane, Eastern or Western. Divisions only lead to more divisions. Shams believed that jihad should be directed inward to fight for control over one's own ego, rather than extending outwards against enemies of Islam. Elif Shafak is no stranger to controversy, having previously been prosecuted for insulting Turkishness. Is this book, then, a direct challenge to radical Islam?

The Bookbag would like to thank the publishers for sending this book.

Stephen O'Shea's Sea of Faith pertinently explores Islam and Christianity in the Middle Ages. We admired two crime novels by Barbara Nadel, set in contemporary Istanbul: River of the Dead and Pretty Dead Things as well as Jason Goodwin's The Janissary Tree. We think you'll also enjoy Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak.

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Buy The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak at


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Ilkay Acar said:

I highly recommend this book. "Above all books I recommend anything from this author.