Three Daughters of Eve
By Elif Shafak
Bloomsbury. 384 pp. $27
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Elif Shafak's new novel reveals such a timely confluence of today's issues - sexual harassment, Islamic terrorism, the rising tension between the faithful and the secular, and the gaping chasm between the rich and the poor - that it seems almost clairvoyant. That relevance is one of the reasons Sharak is so popular in her native Turkey and around the world. The author, who now lives in London, speaks in a voice that captures the roiling tides of diverse cultures. And she's a terrifically engaging storyteller.
Three Daughters of Eve works several decades into a single evening in 2016. A wife and mother named Peri is stuck in traffic on the way to a fancy dinner party. A lifetime of disappointment has rendered her infallibly well-behaved. But "like a magic wand in the wrong hands," Shafak writes, "the traffic turned minutes into hours, humans into brutes and any trace of sanity into sheer lunacy." It's the kind of infuriating, enforced immobility that can drive a person's thoughts in strange directions. Sitting behind the wheel, Peri realizes "that she was capable of killing someone."
Suddenly a suitable candidate appears: A beggar reaches through the car's open window and grabs her purse. Without thinking, Peri dashes out and pursues the thief - a crazy, humiliating sprint that results in her getting attacked and almost raped.
That opening - a strange mixture of slapstick and peril - gives way to a story structured in alternating chapters. We follow Peri to the dinner party, where she arrives stained and disheveled but determined to dismiss everyone's concern. That's easy because the other guests are extraordinarily wealthy and wholly self-absorbed. With well-practiced restraint, Peri listens to them complain about the poor, the religious fanatics, the democratic reformers.
Every other chapter draws us back to Peri's adolescence, growing up in a house torn between her mother's strict Muslim faith and her father's equally strident skepticism. Rather than take sides, Peri seeks a grand resolution. Spoiler alert: She does not succeed.
But the story that develops keeps circling around that struggle: the challenge of reconciling an all-good, all-powerful God with an often evil and chaotic world. Peri is such a fascinating heroine because she remains intensely engaged in this debate but resolutely disinterested. "While some people were passionate believers and others were passionate non-believers," Shafak writes, "she would remain stuck in between."
Three Daughters of Eve illustrates Peri's predicament in dramatic episodes that eventually bring her to study at Oxford. There she's befriended by two fellow students who compete for her allegiance just as her parents once did. These three daughters from different parts of the world jokingly call themselves "the Sinner, the Believer, the Confused."
Despite their differences, they're all captivated by a handsome religion professor, Dr. Azur, who imagines he can inspire a new-old conversation about faith that will transcend sectarian conflicts. "A bit like God himself," Dr. Azur is determined to shift away from dogmatic arguments toward epistemological questions about the very nature of divinity. I kept wanting more depth from Dr. Azur's presentations - until Finally, I realized that's the point: He's a classic master teacher in the "Dead Poets Society" mode: iconoclastic but gimmicky, glazed with intellectuality but essentially narcissistic. He's just the sort of magnetic figure to enchant a naïve young woman like Peri, who writes in her journal, "I would love to change God. ... Wouldn't everyone in the world benefit from that?"
What happens in Oxford and how that idealistic student becomes, 15 years later, a dutiful wife and mother in Istanbul is the mystery that unfolds as we shift back and forth between those two periods of Peri's life toward a crisis as shocking as it is revelatory. In the process, Shafak explores the precarious state of Turkish politics, the evolving position of women in Islam, the sexual ambiguities of college life, and the most profound questions of faith.
Ron Charles reviews books for The Washington Post, where this review first appeared.