As a freshman in college, I boldly took the senior seminar on Miguel de Unamuno, reading San Manuel Bueno, Martír and Del sentimiento tragíco de la vida as well as his other works. It was one of my favorite classes because the subject matter was so fascinating. Unamuno struggled with the conflict between doubt and faith, the inner conflict that is the unifying theme of Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve.
Three Daughters of Eve is a novel of ideas and how they can tear a family and even a person apart. Peri’s father is a secular Turk, an admirer of Ataturk and nominally Muslim, contemptuous of superstition and the oppressive traditions. Her mother is increasingly devout, increasingly fundamentalist. Her older brothers are equally divided and the family is broken by these divisions, or so it seems to Peri.
Her father pushes Peri to free herself by going to Oxford where she finds a professor who teaches God – not religion, God. In a way, he’s teaching Unamuno’s lesson, faith and doubt go together, uncertainty is the way. In Unamuno’s words, “Without doubt, there is no faith.” She thinks he is the teacher she needs, but his teaching methods are risky, pushing students into conflict.
The “three daughters” seem to be Peri and her two roommates, Shirin and Mona. Shirin is doubt, Mona is faith, and Peri is uncertainty. The perfect experiment for the professor’s theory–an experiment that ends in scandal. However, Mona and Shirin are secondary characters. This is about Peri and focuses on three stages of her life, childhood, college, and maturity. In a sense, she is also the three daughters of Eve.
I liked Three Daughters of Eve. It would be obvious to focus on how Shafak is writing about the Muslim dilemma, the conflict between fundamentalism and modernity. But that’s a shallow understanding of her book. Fundamentalism is rigid in all religions. It is in conflict with modernity in all religions. The conflict between faith and doubt is universal. It’s nothing special about Islam and neither is terrorism. After all, what is the difference between Eric Rudolph and Richard Reid? Congressman Rick Allen says gays deserve to die. Please let’s stop pretending that Islam is so backward when we have people excusing child molesting because Mary was a teenager.
If you read Three Daughters of Eve as about Islam and not about the universal dilemma of faith and doubt, then you will miss the real lesson that professor risked so much to teach.
Three Daughters of Eve will be published on December 5th. I received an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.