My Rating: ★★★★☆
Three Daughters of Eve is an ambitious and multilayered novel that explores the feeling of being caught in between the tensions that plague the modern era – between traditionalism and modernity, between religiosity and secularism, between East and West – and the consequences of being ideologically unmoored in a polarized world. While Three Daughters of Eve succeeds in scaling down these lofty ideas into the ways they shape the everyday life of the protagonist, it also uses the rest of its characters as caricatures of these ideas, turning moments of potentially genuine connection into staged battlegrounds where the clash between dichotomies can play out. The result is the reinforcement of such dichotomies rather than their dismantling. Despite that, I enjoyed the novel for the author’s skill in evoking time and place, and her depiction of the modern existential crisis.
The novel opens in modern-day Istanbul, where our thirty-five-year-old protagonist, Peri, is sitting in traffic with her daughter, on their way to a dinner party. Her handbag is stolen by a beggar, and in an uncharacteristic moment, Peri, who’s been “a fine wife, a fine mother, . . . a fine modern Muslim” all her life, impulsively leaves her car on a curb and runs off after the tramp. Later on, when she finds him, he’s rifling through her wallet and an old photo from her university days – one of her charismatic divinity professor and her two friends – falls out. This photo catapults her back into a time that she both cherishes and wishes to forget.
From here, story alternates between Peri’s past and present, with the past encompassing her childhood and university days, and the present stretching over the course of a single dinner party. The present scenes were set up to provide a sort of reverse-foreshadowing of the past, where her feelings about the photo generate interest in what had happened. At the same time, the appearance of the photo at the dinner party sets in motion a series of events that would make Peri’s past and present to converge.
What I initially found to be a contrived set-up gave way to admiration for the seamless transition between past and present. It helps that Shafak explores similar themes across time – namely, how the rigid binaries of the past morph into different forms in the present, their co-existence no longer incendiary but still uneasy and disjointed. When in the past, for example, her devoutly religious mother and her secular and liberal father would be continuously at loggerheads with each other, in the present day:
Religion . . . had been a collage of sorts. It had not been that uncommon to consume alcohol all year round and repent on the Night of Qadr, when one’s sins – so long as one was genuinely remorseful – were erased wholesale. There were plenty of people who fasted during Ramadan both to renew faith and to lose weight. The sacred dovetailed with the profane. (p. 91)
What really won me over, though, was the nuanced exploration of Peri’s character. From both the present-day narrative and the past one, we learn that Peri is introverted, highly observant, and a little strange, but also sensitive to conflict of any kind, so that she erases her strangeness in favor of harmony. This begins from an early age, since she’s born into a household with parents with deeply incompatible political and religious views who try to win their children over to their respective sides. Peri, the third and youngest child, was often put in the awkward position of having to settle the score. “Surrounded by warriors who rebelled against one another,” the narrator writes, “she settled on compulsory complaisance, forcing herself into docility. Without anyone knowing, she quenched the fire in her, turning it into ashes” (p. 21). She would go on to realize that “while some people were passionate believers and others passionate non-believers, she would always remain stuck in between” (p. 39).
Later in Oxford, this same dynamic would play out between her two friends, the women in the photo: between the adventurous and extroverted Shirin, and the devoutly religious Mona. Once again, Peri would sit on the fence, her perceptiveness allowing her to understand both sides but her aversion to conflict preventing her from choosing one.
While Peri may be passive in a sense that she chooses not to act, she’s not without passion: she’s deeply invested in matters of religion, and she yearns for a language about God that doesn’t resort to blind faith or strident atheism. On Shirin’s insistence, she takes the class of Professor Azur, a charismatic and unorthodox divinity teacher who doesn’t teach religion but rather “God”. Eventually, though, Azur’s belief in his own brilliance and his penchant for playing God, along with Peri’s passivity, become his downfall, and 14 years later, Peri is still dealing with the guilt from the fallout.
There were two things, however, that diminished my overall enjoyment of the story. The first is how the rest of the characters are portrayed. Aside from Peri, everyone else seemed to exist solely to be mouthpieces for Ideas. Although vividly presented, they were also entirely predictable, and most of their dialogue was dedicated not to building friendships but to spouting their beliefs at each other.
The second is the uneven plotting. The event that the entire narrative of the past led up to just wasn’t dire enough to warrant all that build-up, and an unnecessary plot twist at the end distracted readers from the resolution that Peri was trying to reach while she was reckoning with her past. There were loose ends that kept niggling at me even after I’d finished the book, and I think it might have benefitted from a few more chapters.
Despite that, I still found it to be a worthwhile read, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested in Shafak’s works, or who, like me, is looking make sense out of the experience of believing in God but not in religion.
Find me on Goodreads | Read from January 16 - February 8, 2020