Whenever I read fiction, I reach out to my well-read friends for recommendations. Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love is a book a friend from work told me about that I was compelled to read. While I’ve never once viewed myself as cold, I think my heart needed a few reminders this text masterfully illustrates.
Brief Book Synopsis:
The Forty Rules of Love (40 Rules) is a novel about relationships and companionship (in the deepest sense of those words).
Fans of the great Sufi poet Rumi could read this as a prologue to what inspired his prolific series of creations and teachings – as it’s informed by the wisdom of Rumi and his fated counterpart, the wandering dervish known as Shams of Tabriz, and tells the story of the effect each had on the others’ life. As a whole, 40 Rules spans multiple perspectives from many characters and their various expressions of love, separated by centuries.
Anyone who dares venture this unique journey of the mind will bounce between the present day and the 13th century. This is all due to the main character Ella’s continued reading of a manuscript she found while doing her new job as an editor/evaluator for a Boston-based literary agency. Well, that and the progressively close relationship she builds with the manuscript’s author.
Elements of passion, morality, spirituality, religious dogma, vice, and much more abound in this popular book that has easily sold over 1 million copies (in over 40 different languages) worldwide. The lives of the characters are impacted drastically in many ways, and you may find that your outlook is altered as well after reading this one.
Captivation Factor –
Elif Shafak’s approaches to the plots and characters she presents in 40 Rules are unflinchingly-pure in a way that few books successfully capture. Readers grow to appreciate how genuine each individual’s drives are. This is true whether you’re witnessing the blitzed ramblings of a drunk, the chaotic neutral wit of Shams, or the somber hopes of a woman thrown into a taboo lifestyle.
The narration offers no opinion of right and wrong to readers even though many vantage points are used over the course of the story. We, the reader, are merely given a novel about testimonials found within a manuscript. The cliffhanger-style tension these disjointed recountings create makes for an interestingly rewarding reading experience.
Look no further than how 40 Rules begins for an example of all of this in action. Things start with the main character Ella sitting through a trying morning with her family and her revelation that she really doesn’t want to review the story in the first place. Literally, a few pages later, readers are dropped into the mind of a killer-for-hire in the year 1252. And that mysterious segment is followed by the introduction of Shams 10-years earlier.
Through all of this, readers are left to wonder what’s going on and what will happen next at the end of each of these episodic vignettes. Although it may feel overwhelming at first, readers eventually get just as invested in the story as Ella does as she continues to read the manuscript and interact with its author.
Originality of Concept –
This book introduced me to Rumi, but I felt like I had actually read a few books presented in this polyphonic style before. That’s the only thing that kept it from a “5” for me. The stories and contextual takes on Rumi’s story plus Shams’ 40 Rules felt unique enough, to me, within the realm of a morphing modern relationship with familial sanctity on the line.
Memorability + Comprehension –
This was the first real ding in this novel’s armor for me.
I took a lot away from the book in terms of thematic elements, but I couldn’t tell you a single rule from the 40 that were named. I understand that remembering the rules isn’t the purpose of the book, but I admittedly wanted to learn them. And it’s a tall order to internalize the rules (or even reference them) since the book doesn’t have a centralized location for the rules – or even an index that tells you what page numbers to locate them on.
Fortunately, once I realized this I started writing down the page number for each rule in the book on the bookmark I was using. And luckily someone took the time to write out each one online, making things easier to look-up.
Other than that, I appreciated that the book kind of avoided wading too deeply into tensions around Sufism in the world and instead focused on capturing key elements of the form of Islam it represents.
Life Application Factor –
Keeping this one short – who can’t use a better understanding of Love in their life? Five out of five!
“Change My Life” Factor –
Since reading this book, I’ve become a daily reader of Rumi, and I also want to travel to Konya one day and catch a performance of the Whirling Dervishes mentioned in the book If I can.
Check out this excerpt from the book…
That description always played out very vividly in my mind, so I had to look it up after I read that portion of the book.
This video provides a bit more context around some of the motions dervishes perform during this traditional dance…
And although I wish he would’ve kept his shirt on – this guy’s whirling form is just very elegant to watch.
Fact: This is probably something I wouldn’t ever have even known about if it weren’t for this book, so that checks the “Changed My Life” box for me already.
Throw in the desire to live out the love expressed in the 40 rules on top of this change in my bucket list travel plans, plus a desire to learn more deeply about Rumi (who I now read daily) and Sufism – and I think it’s fair to say that this book had a pretty big impact on me as a reader.
Design & Layout –
I have the paperback version of this book, so there isn’t much to speak of in terms of design elements to the book. The cover is nice, and I’m happy there’s a glossary of terms – but there isn’t anything more to this one. Had there been a reference spot for the 40 rules this score would be a bit higher, but that’s how things land as I stand with my current copy.
There is a hardcover version available – but it’s going to over $100 in new condition on Amazon! I love this book, but no thank you.
While I encourage you to read a physical copy of the book, I will leave you with a full audio version of the book that I found on YouTube + a Reading Guide from the publisher.
I really enjoyed this one a lot, and I know I’ll re-read it for many years to come. If you give it a read, please feel free to add your rating to the star-review system above, and share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Peace, and thanks for reading.
The soundtrack for this post provided by…
– Cover Image © Johnnie Weathersby III
– Body Image 1 © Zeynel Abidin
– Body Image 2 © kazim kuyucu (Shutterstock)
– Body Image 3 © Unknown