“Such and such has everything, 2 [or sometimes 3] children, a seemingly happy marriage and a comfortable home in [insert wealthy suburb] but underneath the veneer of stability, the devoted, selfless housewife is coming undone….. [enter mysterious stranger/long-lost lover/priest/pole-dancer/etc/etc]”.
With Elif Shafak’s “Forty Rules of Love” I naively believed that, despite the formulaic starting point (refer above) the normal predictors and chiches would not ultimately prevail. Not least the reputation of the author (in particular her acclaimed first novel “The Bastards of Istanbul”) made me hope for greater things. But also, more importantly, it seems clear from the outset that Ella’s mid-life crisis is simply the backstory to the real guts of the novel, which is all about Sufi theology in the 13th century.
The link is less tenuous than it sounds. Ella has been contracted to read and edit the manuscript of a novel about the great poet Rumi and his teacher and mentor Shamz of Tabriz. Essentially then it could be part historical fiction – Rumi is a much loved and quoted poet (as famous as Shakespeare is in the West) and the story of his relationship with the traveling dervish Shamz of Tabriz is well documented.
Ella is transformed by what she reads. While her husband has his affairs (or so she suspects), while her children fight and bicker and generally make her life feel empty and miserable, while she cooks three course meals that no-one appreciates, she sinks deeper into herself. And therein begins her personal journey. Or so you might think!!
What ACTUALLY happens is that in the midst of her depression Ella writes a letter to the mysterious author of the book and immediately strikes up a relationship that is as profound as it is laughable.
The link between the parallel, if somewhat disjointed, stories lies in the message that the trials and tribulations that people are going through in the modern day and age are not very different to those people were experiencing thousands of years ago. Our circumstances may have changed but the terrain of human emotions – pride, jealousy, desire, fear, judgment, hate, love, etc, have not. The spiritual lessons that were imparted by the likes of the famous poet Rumi are as valid and applicable today as they were centuries ago.
It was a message I grasped with both hands – indeed, there was spiritual wisdom on every page which I wholeheartedly embraced. But that only made me more confused.
How is it that Ella managed to read the same text as me and come to the conclusion that the correct course of action was to walk out on her husband and kids? I mean, didn’t she just miss the point? At their core, Rumi was about love, Shamz was about truth and honesty. At the very least Ella could have confronted her husband, turned the light on his behaviour, showed him her pain. Given him an opportunity to change? Why was there no effort on Ella’s part to delve into her own flaws and weaknesses, into the ways she may have contributed to the downfall of their relationship?
How Ella managed to internalise Rumi and Shamz’ teachings as catalyst to turn her back on her kids in order to pursue a relationship with a man she’s known for five minutes, I will never know. Surely, the journey should have been inwards? Even if her relationship had not been salvageable, wouldn’t the greater rebellion be to meet the fear of walking alone head on? I actually think Ella’s behaviour was an insult to Rumi’s teachings, at least as they are depicted in this novel.
And beyond that, why, oh WHY do married women in midlife always have to be portrayed as so weak, self-sacrificing, emotionally dependent and competent in the kitchen?!!