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Thursday, October 24, 2002

What I Finished Reading Today:

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

This is what my book group is reading this month, and although we haven't met yet to discuss it, I expect the talk to be quite interesting.

In short, the story is a multi-layered look at Egyptian life, love and politics, seen mostly though the eyes of a present-day Egyptian woman and a British woman who visits Egypt and then makes her home there just after the turn of the 20th century. It all begins when a present-day American woman named Isabel finds a trunk of her mother's things, which include letters and a diary kept by her British grandmother, Anna, when she travelled to Egypt around 1900. But most of the materials are in French and Arabic, so Isabel shows them to Omar, an Egyptian conductor she's just met (and with whom she's quickly falling in love), and he suggests that his sister, Amal, in Egypt, would be a good person to help with the translations. Isabel takes the trunk to Egypt, and as she and Amal work their way through Anna's papers, they forge a strong friendship, while becoming immersed in both Anna's story and new developments in their own love lives. The two women also discover a family connection in the materials, which draws them even closer...and as the stories of past and present weave back and forth, they both play out against vivid backdrops of the ever-turbulent political developments in Egypt.

At times, if you don't know the details of Egyptian and Middle Eastern history, some of the political material does get a bit dense...but the story has so many dimensions, and so many neatly woven plot threads, that it never gets too slow or bogged down in historical detail for too long. Also, the stories of Anna's romance with an Egyptian man, Sharif Basha, Isabel's troubled relationship with Omar, Isabel's burgeoning relationship with Amal, Amal's fascination with Anna's story and her own budding romance with an old college friend (despite the fact that they're both married to others), all provide very involving and very human-scale drama.

For me, there were several very involving things about the book. First, I thought the author found a wealth of good stories to tell, and watching how she weaves them all together with such dexterity (much as Anna, in the book, weaves an elaborate three-part tapestry which plays a central and very symbolic role) really impressed me. I enjoy doing this kind of thing in my own writing, and I love reading authors who are particularly good at it. Second, the story does a great job of taking the reader to a new place and culture, which is always interesting. And, third, while I don't have a strong knowledge of Egyptian and/or Middle Eastern history, I am currently reading a book called, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, by Karen Armstrong (I'll write more about that one when I finish it), which actually provides an interesting overview of Egypt's religious and political history. One of the main themes in Armstrong's book is Egypt's struggle with modernity (desiring it on one hand, but realizing at every turn that it can only follow in the more modern footsteps of Europe in general, and Britain in particular...when, on the other hand, it desires nothing more than to be free of British rule and influence). And all the historical details described in Armstrong's book are dramatized, in great detail, in Soueif's book. So the two made a great companion set, and each definitely helped me to understand the other better. (I love it when that happens!) Finally, despite the wealth of detail in "Map," the author manages to leave each of the stories with a bit of mystery - about each of the central characters - at the end. Although this is definitely a bit frustrating (after spending more than 500 pages with these folks, you really do want to know how they all end up), it's also good because it provides lots of food for thought after the story is done, and it makes everything resonate just a bit more than it would if things were all neatly tied up with big red bows.

The only questionable note in the story, I thought, was a rather melodramatic turn in which Isabel learns that her new love, Omar, who is much older than she, also once had an affair with her mother...approximately nine months before Isabel's birth. This seemed a bit over the top to me, and the question of whether Isabel's lover might also be her own father, which hovers briefly over the story, didn't seem to add much to the narrative. After thinking about it for a while, however, I did realize that the author was probably trying to justify the way Omar continues to hold Isabel at arm's length in their romance...which is necessary to prevent their story from being an exact duplicate of the Anna/Sharif Basha romance (can't have too many once-in-a-lifetime successful romances between Anglo women and Egyptian men in one story, after all). But while that impulse was probably a good one on the author's part, I do question her choice of the possible incest as the best device to do that. Something a bit less wild would probably have been a bit more believable, and definitely more in keeping with the overall serious tone.

On the whole, however, I definitely would recommend the book - it's very involving, on many levels, and quite educational, too. Also especially relevant in these days when Western/Middle Eastern tensions are at such a high and command such a prominent place in the world spotlight.

posted by Elizabeth 8:12 AM

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