Book Review – Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

by RajaRajeshwari Arenga

Finally got to read The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak and sharing some thoughts on the same.
Some spoilers ahead!

I found it to be a fascinating read that leaves a lasting impression. The narrative is simple, unassuming and takes you on a lyrical journey filled with timeless mystical romance that transcends space and time. I found the writing style a little reminiscent of Paulo Coehlo’s earlier books.

It begins with a run-of-the-mill present day plot of a frustrated and placid Jewish housewife Ella facing cliched middle-aged blues and identity crisis, replete with a cheating husband she cannot emotionally connect with anymore, a rebellious teenage daughter and twins on the verge of teenage, dealing with issues of their own. With her husband’s reference she lands a job at a literary agency as a reader. She receives a manuscript for review on her very first assignment and therein unfolds the magical thread that connects the current day story to an epic mystical romance from the 13th century steeped in Sufism’s forty rules of love. Ella’s curiosity is kindled on reading the manuscript that spellbindingly narrates the events that led to the transformative and mystical relationship between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. In a move surprising herself, she begins a clandestine email correspondence with the author of the manuscript. A bold step that causes ripples in her tranquil and uninspiring existence, bringing with it life-changing consequences for the author, Ella and her family. Her email exchanges change into a philosophical relationship with strong romantic undertones, carried online then progressing to phone calls before finally culminating into something more tangible. The author Aziz is a globetrotting photographer and blogger of Scottish origin who happens to be a Muslim convert on the path of Sufi mysticism.

The story from the 13th century centered around Shams and Rumi, inspired by historical facts and narrated from the angles of different characters, is interspersed with a rather ordinary, plain and predicable story from the present day. But the overall effect is anything but ordinary as both the stories told in parallel unfold with startling clarity, fueled by mesmerizing and lucid prose, generously peppered with Sufi quotes and anecdotes, giving it an hypnotic effect. The story-telling is stunning as it meanders through the perspectives of multiple characters, whose lives were touched, transformed for better (and in the case of some, for worse) by the larger-than-life wandering Sufi mystic, Shams of Tabriz from the 13th century.
The flow of the novel is natural, smooth and riveting, with seamless and harmonious transitions between the two parallel stories and the several viewpoints.

The only parts that I found grating on my sensibilities and that had a jarring effect were the ones pertaining to the second half of Kimya’s story and Kerra’s treatment by Rumi. Rumi is shown as being empathetic and forward thinking in taking Kimya under his wings and helping her grow spiritually and helping expand her knowledge, and in pushing the boundaries of his spiritual realization after his association with Shams. But then is shown as resenting his wife Kerra’s interest in his books and treating her with casual indifference. Kimya’s story starts out promising and inspiring. Coming from a modest background, her broadminded father acknowledges the special gift she possesses and takes her to Rumi to shape her journey towards knowledge and spirituality. Rumi, recognizing her spiritual gift, graciously accepts the girl child into his household with a generous and kind heart and begins teaching and guiding her, as an adoptive father. But in an unexpected and shocking turn of events Kimya is shown to have developed romantic infatuation towards Shams and is married off to him at the tender age of 15 and soon meets her tragic end, heartbroken. It is an unconsummated marriage. A marriage that Shams, soon after the ceremony, views as a trap and a deterrent to his spiritual journey and this makes you wonder how Shams having been portrayed so far as someone so wise and enlightened and having established a divine relationship/companionship with Rumi, could be shown as even having agreed to a union like this. This struck a discordant note as it appeared rather incongruous with his character sketch painted so vividly and consistently in the rest of the book. I am not aware about the underlying historical facts that might have inspired this part of the story, so that could be a cause for my startled reaction towards this portion of the story.

That apart, I found the rest of the book compelling, filled with several thought provoking instances and all in all found it to be a beautiful reading experience the author has created by weaving a rich tapestry of historical and imaginary events expressed in a powerful and moving manner.
Something I found really noteworthy is the way the author has leveraged Sufism to deliver a sublime and non-preachy message of tolerance and embracing differences with numerous examples of religious and cultural co-existence throughout the book. Also the abstract comparison and connection between the characters of Rumi and Ella and between Shams and Aziz, wandering souls both, is exquisitely drawn. The comparison between Rumi and Ella is implied especially based on their inner renouncement of worldly relationships for an all-encompassing divine love and mystic companionship, renouncing reputation, changing way of life and finally loss of soul companion.

Below are some memorable extracts from the book that strike a realistic chord and makes one ponder.

“Most of problems of the world stem from linguistic mistakes and simple misunderstanding. Don’t ever take words at face value. When you step into the zone of love, language, as we know it becomes obsolete. That which cannot be put into words can only be grasped through silence.”

“Hell is in the here and now. So is heaven. Quit worrying about hell or dreaming about heaven, as they are both present inside this very moment. Every time we fall in love, we ascend to heaven. Every time we hate, envy, or fight someone, we tumble straight into the fires of hell.”

“Do not go with the flow. Be the flow.” – Found this to be a recurring theme in the book, right from the beginning, in the reference of the effect of throwing a stone in a lake versus a flowing river to the essence of a wandering mystic.

“East, west, south, or north makes little difference. No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey a journey within. If you travel within, you’ll travel the whole wide world and beyond.”

“The universe is one being. Everything and everyone is interconnected through an invisible web of stories. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all in a silent conversation. Do no harm. Practice compassion. And do not gossip behind anyone’s back – not even a seemingly innocent remark! The words that come out of our mouths do not vanish but are perpetually stored in infinite space and they will come back to us in due time. One man’s pain will hurt us all. One man’s joy will make everyone smile.”

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