This is a story within a story. Modern-day Ella is unhappy in her marriage and she strikes up a correspondence with the author of a manuscript she's reading for work. It's his novel, about the relationship between a wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz, and the Islamic mystic poet Rumi, that is the heart of the book.
The forty rules are nuggets of wisdom, distilled by Shams from the Qur'an. The rules themselves do not exist historically — they are original to Shafak, inspired by Sufism.
This is a lovely window onto Islam as a religion of love. It's fairly simply told, but this veers toward simplistic, which is a shame; the material is so rich to be treated superficially.
Sadly, the writing is a little thin. The 13th-century story is told through the eyes of several characters; with every chapter there's a switch of narrator. While this helps to bring to light the many facets of our main subjects of interest (Shams and Rumi), the voices are insufficiently distinct to easily tell them apart or to cast any fresh perspective (apart from the physical one — different narrators occupying a different space and time) on them. I had trouble keeping track of them, but it barely mattered, so what's the point? (Cf the far more effective use of multiple narrators in Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red.)
I guess Ella's story is our way in to this "exotic" tale. But it takes up only a few pages, interspersed throughout the turmoils that Shams and Rumi suffer. There's no nuance to her. While I can relate to what she represents on some levels, her character does not live and breathe. The novel would be stronger without her. The American housewife simply doesn't ring true from the pen of the Turkish writer, and it feels like an artificial device for attracting a certain type of reader.
I didn't really like this book — mostly I think it's just not very well written. However, Shafak's rules offer plenty of food for thought. I've found myself talking about this book quite a bit, even though I wouldn't recommend it to anyone (there are richer texts in the world!).
I continue to ask myself: Is it true hypocrisy makes people happy, and truth makes them sad? What does it mean to not go with the flow, but to be the flow?
Laughable, maybe; but it is a way in.
One of the rules:
Live this life as light and empty as the number zero. We are no different from a pot. It is not the decorations outside but the emptiness inside that holds us straight. Just like that it is not what we aspire to achieve but the consciousness of nothingness that keeps us going.