Elif Shafak’s new novel reveals such a timely confluence of today’s issues that it seems almost clairvoyant. Sexual harassment, Islamist terrorism, the rising tension between the faithful and the secular, and the gaping chasm between the rich and the poor — all play out in the pages of “Three Daughters of Eve.” That hyper-relevance is one of the reasons Shafak is so popular in her native Turkey and around the world. The author, who now lives in London, speaks in a multivalent voice that captures the roiling tides of diverse cultures. And, of course, as readers know from her previous novels “The Architect’s Apprentice” and “The Bastard of Istanbul,” it helps that she’s a terrifically engaging storyteller.
“Three Daughters of Eve” is an ingenious act of compression that works several decades into a single evening. It takes place in 2016 on a spring day in Istanbul. 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.”
And then 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. But nothing about that ordeal affects her like seeing an old Polaroid fall out of her purse during the chase. “It was one of the few photos from her time at Oxford,” Shafak writes. “She could not afford to lose it.”
That opening — a strange mixture of slapstick and peril, immediacy and reminiscence — gives way to a story structured in alternating chapters. In the present day, we follow Peri on 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 — in other words, about anyone who might imperil the fragile privilege of their lives.
We soon learn that the pose of being simultaneously within and without has been Peri’s natural state for most of her life. Every other chapter draws us back to Peri’s adolescence, when she was growing up in a house torn between her mother’s strict Muslim faith and her father’s equally strident skepticism. But rather than take sides in that familial battle, Peri seeks a grand resolution. “She had come to believe through some twisted logic of her own that if she were to bring together her mother’s Creator and her father’s Creator, she might be able to restore harmony between her parents,” Shafak writes. “With some kind of agreement as to what God was or was not, there would be less tension in the Nalbantoglu household, even across the world.”
Spoiler alert: She does not succeed.
But the story that develops keeps circling around that struggle, moving from her parents’ domestic squabbles to the central conundrum of theodicy: 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.”
That metaphysical stasis might sound cerebral or even dull, but Shafak takes a passionate, athletic approach to the novel of ideas. “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 back home. These three daughters from different parts of the world jokingly refer to themselves as “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. For a time, the story skirts close to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s brilliant novel “36 Arguments for the Existence of God,” but I kept wanting more depth from Dr. Azur’s presentations. 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 naive 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 between those two distinct periods of Peri’s life toward a crisis as shocking as it is revelatory. And 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.
There are novels you want to cherish in the sanctity of your own adoration, and then there are novels you feel impatient to talk about with others. Press “Three Daughters of Eve” on a friend or your book club for a great conversation about this flammable era we live in now.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.
By Elif Shafak
Bloomsbury. 384 pp. $27