“Three Daughters of Eve” slowly teases out the defining moments in the life of its Muslim protagonist and culminates in a dinner party you won’t want to miss.
“Three Daughters of Eve”
by Elif Shafak
Bloomsbury, 384 pp., $27
Like the multiple courses in the posh dinner party that is its centerpiece, “Three Daughters of Eve” slowly teases out the defining moments of its protagonist’s life.
The timely new novel by Turkish author Elif Shafak (“The Architect’s Apprentice,” “The Bastard of Istanbul”) deftly blends Nazperi “Peri” Nalbantoglu’s life in her beloved, exasperating Istanbul — a city of “seven hills, two continents, three seas and 15 million mouths” — as a child and teen in the 1980s and 1990s, and as an adult in 2016. And it jumps back and forth to her first year as a university student in Oxford, England, in 2001.
Peri is “a fine wife, a fine mother, a fine housewife, a fine citizen, a fine modern Muslim … It would therefore come as a surprise when, on a middling kind of day, at the age of thirty-five, established and respected, she found herself staring at the void in her soul.”
This existential crisis comes in the novel’s heart-pounding opening sequence. Peri and her preteen daughter are stuck in traffic on their way to a soiree when a thief reaches into their car and runs off with Peri’s handbag.
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Mild-mannered Peri jumps out of the car and hauls off after him. When she catches up, she is shocked to discover the lengths to which she’ll go to reclaim an old Polaroid she keeps hidden in her wallet.
A young Peri — shy, studious, obedient — could never have imagined such inner fire. She grows up the youngest child in a home where she is loved but where her parents are at war.
Father Mensur is a heavy drinker who values science and reason, and whose hero, Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, is featured prominently in several photographs in the Nalbantoglu home. Superstitious, devout Mother Selma increasingly aligns herself with what Mensur sees as the greatest threat to the founding principles of his homeland — fundamentalist Islam.
Caught in the middle, Peri learns “early on … that there was no fight more hurtful than a family fight, and no family fight more hurtful than one over God.”
She is further traumatized when beloved older brother Umut, who has been exploring Marxism, is arrested and tortured, becoming a shadow of his intellectually curious, affectionate self. Both her father’s secular modernism and her mother’s God betrayed her.
Peri throws herself into her studies and is accepted at Oxford University, her father’s dream, where she promptly meets the two other “daughters of Eve” of the title: opinionated fashionista Shirin, whose family left Iran after the Islamic Revolution, and equally outspoken Mona, an Egyptian American who wears a hijab and has a passion for hip-hop.
Shirin calls the housemates “The Sinner, the Believer and the Confused.” Especially after 9/11, the heated debates between Shirin and Mona about faith and feminism make poor Peri shrink into herself all over again.
But she finds her voice and permission to be a skeptical seeker in the seminar of charismatic, unorthodox Professor Azur. Peri is irresistibly drawn to his exhortations: “God is an enigma that calls for exploration”; “certainty was to curiosity what the sun was to the wings of Icarus.”
Her long-ago association with Professor Azur is much on Peri’s mind when she finally arrives at the dinner party at a mansion overlooking the Bosporus, to which she bitingly refers as “The Last Supper of the Turkish Bourgeoisie.”
It is a long, alcohol-fueled evening, full of debates about democracy versus dictatorship in the Muslim world in the wake of the Arab Spring.
And as events outside the mansion’s gates, and from Peri’s past, come to a head, it is fascinating to have a seat at the table.