Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak tells the story of a Turkish woman, Nazperi Nalbantoglu, known as Peri. The narrative shifts backwards and forwards in time, beginning with Peri as an adult wife and mother living in Istanbul in 2016, to her childhood growing up in Istanbul in the 1980s, to the time she spent as a student at Oxford University in 2000.
Peri’s childhood is fraught with anxieties. Her favorite brother is arrested by Turkish authorities and serves time in a Turkish prison. He emerges from his ordeal as a changed man. Her mother and father fight incessantly over religion with each side becoming increasingly entrenched in his/her respective positions. To add further complication to her life, Peri is visited by a mysterious spirit in the form of a baby enshrouded in a mist of clouds. He appears and disappears at pivotal moments in her life.
During her stay at Oxford, Peri befriends Shirin, a non-observant Muslim from Tehran; and Mona, a devout Muslim from Egypt. Collectively, they are the three daughters of Eve. On the advice of Shirin, Peri enrolls in a seminar about God. The charismatic professor, Dr. Azur, employs an unconventional pedagogy in conducting the seminar—one that is designed to challenge his students. Unfortunately, he is also arrogant, manipulative, and doesn’t hesitate to exploit the vulnerabilities of his students to further his aims. He manipulates them like pawns on a chess board. Predictably, Peri becomes infatuated with him, an infatuation that soon turns to hostility when she learns of his affair with Shirin. The novel concludes where it began—Istanbul in 2016. Peri, hiding in a closet from gunmen who have invaded the house, phones Professor Azur and achieves a closure of sorts in her conversation with him.
Shafak sustains reader interest in the narrative with happenings that generate interest and shifts in time that are easy to follow. But the character portrayals are weak. While Peri is depicted as well-rounded, confused, and conflicted, the remaining characters emerge as venues or mouthpieces for different perspectives on religion, philosophy, and politics. They spout their views, presenting one side or another in a manner that feels obviously constructed. They talk at each other instead of to each other and are reduced to little more than mouthpieces for a particular point of view. As a result, the story suffers. And although the novel concludes with Peri presumably achieving an understanding of her experience at Oxford, that understanding wasn’t communicated effectively to provide satisfactory closure to the novel.
Recommended with reservations.
Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice is a much stronger and more compelling novel and displays her talents to better advantage.