The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak: Book Review

Title: The Forty Rules of Love

Author: Elif Shafak

Genre: Literary Fiction

The Forty Rules of Love are essentially 40 observations about love and God, propounded by Shams of Tabrizi, a Sufi mystic. The book is an account of these rules and how they can be interpreted in a modern context through the story of Ella Rubenstein, the twentieth century housewife facing the usual conundrums of life.

The story

Ella Rubenstein has a life that anyone would be envious of, looking in from outside. Prosperous, with a close-knit family and security, there is nothing more she could ask. But inside her is a void that refuses to be filled. She is on the cusp of middle-age, looking at her crumbling marriage and keeping herself busy in pursuits that bring only fleeting happiness.

It is in midst of this inner turmoil that she starts reading a manuscript about the celebrated Sufi mystic Rumi. As she dives deeper, she is drawn by the forty rules of life put forth by his companion, Shams Tabriz. In her life, she finds solace in communicating with the mysterious author of the book who seems to be living his life as per these rules.

Review

Forty Rules of love is set in two parallel narratives – end of twentieth century in Massachusetts where Ella lives and thirteenth century in Persia, where Rumi encountered his spiritual mentor, Shams.

“Fear not where the road will take you… Don’t go with the flow. Be the flow.”

The book alternates between these two time periods and also between different narrative voices, especially in the thirteenth century. The end result could have been jarring but it is not, mainly because the language does not alter much, only the setting.

The trope is that of self discovery through an exploration of spiritual learnings and the author has handled it adroitly in a way that can be very relatable to the reader.

“The whole universe is contained within a single human being – you.”

What works well

As the book progressed, I felt more drawn to the narrative that was much in the past because of the richness of description and the discovery of an unknown place and time.

The Forty rules, the observations are woven into the narrative so that none of it seems as a sermon. And yet the rules are set apart in italics. These observations serve as a starting point of many reflections and I frequently stopped reading and mulled over the meaning and how they could be applied to my situation.

“Try not to resist the changes, which come your way. Instead let life live through you.”

The subtitle declared the book as ‘A Novel of Rumi’ but Shams easily overshadows Rumi in the book. The forty rules are given by Shams and he is supposed to have guided Rumi the scholar and orator to be Rumi the mystic and the lover.

What doesn’t work well

Forty Rules of Love has a multilayered narrative through its characters and yet it lacks the depth to engage. The story of Ella sounds clichéd.

The characters in the present just did not get my sympathy. I found Ella acting out of her character; till the half of the book, I couldn’t see through to her soul. Ella is not believable; it is not about the unexpected things she does, it is more about her swinging from being shy and unassuming to bold and truncunt the next.

The plot sometimes seems contrived just so that the rules can be fit in the story. The flow could have been more natural.

Verdict

Read Forty Rules of Love for an introduction to Sufi mysticism and how ancient texts can still be used in context of the modern world.

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