“Some people want to change the world; others, their partners or friends. As for me, I would love to change God. Now that would be something. Wouldn’t everyone in the world benefit from that?” —Peri’s God diary, Three Daughters of Eve
I fell in love with Elif Shafak’s work with 40 Rules of Love, and later on with Bastard of Istanbul. I picked up Three Daughters of Eve for its synopsis: three girls, the Confused, the Sinner, and the Believer, who meet in Oxford with conversations about existence and God. The Confused, Peri, is the main character. Born in Istanbul to feuding parents, Peri’s father is a Kemalist while her mother is conservatively religious. Her brother is tortured and arrested for being involved in a communist party. Thus, Peri grows up in an unhappy family, unhappy in its own unique way as every unhappy family is according to Tolstoy (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”). An unhappiness that instead of leaving her angry, leaves her confused.
The Sinner, Shirin, is a girl born to Iranian parents who fled their homeland after the Iranian revolution. The Believer, Mona, is an American-Egyptian feminist and activist. Their first year of undergrad coincides with 9/11, and sets in motion a series of conversations in a GOD course offered on campus by an eminent and wacky Professor, Azur.
Azur is a professor in the divinity school, and for his GOD class he handpicks the students: an Islamophobe, a Mormon, a Muslim (Mona), a Jew, a Hindu, a staunch atheist, and our confused heroine, Peri. In one of the chapters, Professor Azur talks about how in the early 21st century philosophers had concluded that God would become irrelevant in the future, only to find ourselves in the present condition where it is almost the opposite. The tensions of religion and politics only ever increasing, because people have ceased talking about God—God separate from religion that is. Azur believes in remaining thoroughly confused, he tailors his class syllabus so that atheists read religious works, and the religiously conservative read books by atheists. Out of the three girls, Peri most thoroughly embodies Azur’s confusion.
The main theme then is of balance, balance between belief and unbelief, East and West, despair and elation, future and past, modernity and mysticism. If Rumi was the central poet for 40 Rules of Love, for this novel it is Omar Khayyam, that poet deemed by the West as an atheist, and by the East as a saint, fitting for our confused heroine from Turkey, that country that straddles the space between the East and West. It feels as if Peri is the example of the challenge of staying agnostic. However, rather than this being a balance in her, I find it to be a trapping between two extremes, a pinball bouncing against opposite walls infinitely in oscillating confusion, reminding me of Sylvia Plath’s journals, “I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between.” The balance between mysticism and modernity also remains somewhat questionable, as it did in 40 Rules of Love for me. The past in that book, as it did in this one, seemed to ring truer than the present. Shafak gives the raw material from which balance still needs to be achieved.
The dialogue sometimes seems a little forced and unrealistic, and I noticed a sort of meshing of characters across novels. Professor Azur especially reminded me of Aziz from 40 Rules of Love. Three Daughters of Eve is less fast paced than Shafak’s other novels, propelled slowly with a mystery of betrayal hinted at from the first chapter, and remains perhaps deliberately so. At times I wish we could get greater insight into the characters, who sometimes fall flat with a lack of complexity. More than that, I had gone into the novel expecting a deep friendship between the three girls, and that was definitely not the case. The problem with personifying confusion, belief, and sin, is that it ends up making the characters somewhat one dimensional. Mona is the hijabi with kohl rimmed eyes, a teetotaler, and a virgin. Shirin is the mini-skirt wearing, binge drinking, promiscuous one. Peri dresses moderately, drinks occasionally, and is less promiscuous than Shirin. These divisions were slightly frustrating for me, because it seemed to fall into certain stereotypes, although perhaps inevitable in this case.
Elif Shafak’s works have a magical quality of drawing in a diverse array of people, so that her work is relatable on a global level. In this novel she tackles multiple themes including God, religion, feminism, politics, modernism, and mysticism. Shafak manages to take the difficult task of personifying three traits on the spectrum of belief-disbelief, and create with them a world of loss, poetry, and hope. This book is a balm in the tense world we currently live in, taking a step back from rigid beliefs and entering a space of confusion from which tolerance, and beyond that, acceptance, is derived.