Ella Rubinstein, the protagonist of half of Elif Shafak's new novel, The Forty Rules of Love, is an unhappy wife and mother who, as part of a new job at a literary agency, reads a manuscript by a modern Sufi about the life of Rumi. Ella becomes infatuated with the author, Aziz Zahara, and as they correspond, he expounds on his book Sweet Blasphemy.
The chapters alternate between Ella's story and Aziz's novel. Sweet Blasphemy is less about Rumi the poet and more about his (in)famous friendship with the mystic Shams of Tabriz, who encourages his poetic side. Rumi's reputation becomes ruined by the conservative mystic, and he retreats further and further away from his family, deep in thought and conversation with Shams.
The parallels are obvious: In her 2007 novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, Shafak allegedly "insulted Turkishness" when one of her characters identified the killing of Armenians by the pre-Atatürk Turkish government as "genocide." She was prosecuted in her native Turkey, as her countryman Orhan Pamuk had been, for violating code 301, which literally makes it illegal to insult the Turkish people or government.
Ella detaches herself from her own family as she falls in love with Aziz. Her actions are not always admirable, and Shafak raises the question of how far a person can rightfully travel into the recesses of mysticism and love when they have children who need them. But Shafak's Rumi and Shams come alive, bringing their mysticism with them into the 21st century, which is perhaps not all that different from their own time. Shams imparts rules to Rumi that remain controversial, and possibly heretical, in the United States today, such as number 25:
Hell is 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.
And then later in the book, when Ella muses, "If there was anything worse in the eyes of society than a woman abandoning her husband for another man, it was a woman abandoning her future for the present moment," the reader still has to question the wisdom of spiritually or physically leaving your family for love. Without these questionable moral turns, Forty Rules would amount to a mound of fortune cookies.