In retrospect, I don't think I've ever read anything else by a Turkish author before. I tried to read Snow by Orhan Pamuk but gave up halfway through because the story seemed to be going nowhere at a snail's pace. I am not sure why I bought this book. It was definitely one of those that I picked up because it was highlighted in some way at the book store, only to realize that somehow the description I thought I read in the book store and the description I read at my house sounded like two completely different novels. Mysticism? Spirituality? Wait, this isn't a romantic love story?
Anyway, having finally found some motivation to actually read this, I was pleasantly surprised by the novel, though in the end I also think it will end up being somewhat forgettable. Ella Rubenstein, a forty year old New England housewife, has to read the unpublished novel Sweet Blasphemy as her first assignment for her new job with a literary agency. The actual novel ends up flashing back and forth between Ella's life and the novel within the novel. Sweet Blasphemy is the story of Shams of Tabriz and his friendship with Rumi, famous Persian poet and mystic. When it begins, Shams, who has visions, realizes it is time to give up his solitude as a wandering dervish and to find a companion, someone whom he can teach all he has learned in his life and converse with. He hears that the famous cleric Rumi is in search of a companion because while he is successful and has everything he might need in life, he still feels unsatisfied and unhappy. Shams goes to Konya (in present day Turkey), and he and Rumi quickly strike up a friendship, with Shams challenging Rumi to see life in a different way and interact with the types of people he had never come into contact with before, including beggars, drunks and prostitutes. At first, I had my doubts about this section, especially when I realized that Sweet Blasphemy was actually going to contain all forty rules of love - every time something would remind Shams of a rule, he would tell that person, "that's like one of the rules" and then quote it. While it seemed very gimmicky, especially in the beginning, I actually ended up quite liking the historical novel part of this book. The section are narrated by various people, including Rumi, Shams, Rumi's family, and various townspeople, and seeing the conflict that Shams brought into the town and the family was quite engaging. The poor loved Shams, the rich and powerful felt he was challenging their status, and Rumi's family wasn't sure how to react - happy for Rumi, yet feeling left out and neglected.
The modern day story wasn't bad but Ella was a very bland character. Due to her interest in the story that Aziz Z. Zahara is telling in Sweet Blasphemy, she googles** him, finds his blog and begins an online correspondence with him. Ella has always been the kind of person that just goes with it, but she is now realizing that she isn't happily married, and she isn't in love with her husband anymore. While I had no problem with her internal journey, I just didn't quite get her fascination with Aziz, a photographer and Sufi. Honestly, Aziz sounds like one of those guys that might be cool in a novel but I would find him obnoxious and insufferable in real life. I understand Ella's interest in him given how huge a contrast his life is from hers, but I couldn't quite see his interest in her, other than simply being a nice guy which is enough for a friendship, but not a love story.
Overall, this really was much better than I expected - while there is more religion than I would normally choose in a novel, it didn't seem overly preachy. It was also somewhat new agey and the principles themselves were less about any particular religion as much as they were about god - as I said, those things are fine to see in a novel every once in a while even if I wouldn't actually want to hang out with anyone with New Age believes. One of the author's previous novels was long-listed for the Orange Prize a few years back, so I definitely think I might check that one out, especially since that one is less focused on the mystical and spiritual based on descriptions.
*I know I usually link to Amazon but for some reason the novel is showing up as $199.00 on Amazon.
** Am I the only who thinks the fact that Gmail's spell check doesn't recognize the word "googles" is amusing - I could see Yahoo or MSN being against the word.