The story of two young lives: one a Turkish Muslim living in Istanbul who is clueless about the identity of her father, a 'bastard' in a social sense, and the other an Armenian American who has travelled to Istanbul from San Francisco to trace her roots, a bastard in terms of her national identity. Both carry a painful past that they want to confront and resolve, and this leads to the touchy subject of the "Armenian qustion" that many in Turkey are still not ready to discuss. Shafak in an interview said, "They can't talk about 1915... ours is a society with collective amnesia. We haven't come to grips with our past, nor have we recognized how bitter the Armenians are because their grief goes unacknowledged. I would like Armenians to forgive and forget one day, too, but we Turks need to remember first".
This novel got Elif Shafak into some real hot waters and she became yet another writer to join sixty others, including Orhan Pamuk, who have been charged for defamation and misrepresentation under Turkey's Criminal Code. Shafak was shocked and "didn't think a work of fiction would get me branded a traitor to my country". Why is Art under so much pressure? Since when did a work of fiction come under such scrutiny for historical legitimacy and be charged for ethical or criminal misconduct? A baffled Shafak claims, " I am a novelist. When I write, I don't calculate the consequences of what I'm writing. I just surround myself with the story." Apparently the charges have cited defamatory language used by one of the characters, such as 'Turkish butchers' that 'slaughtered the Armenians like sheep', as a prime reason for the charges. How this character's expostulations translate into Shafak being charged as a traitor is beyond logic!
The female characters that abound in this novel are varied, complex, and often shocking; they shatter some stereotypes that we have built about women residing in Muslim countries. Along with a gripping story, and enticing charcterization, the novel offers an inside view of Turkish culture with a focus on the aromas and recipes of Turkey's ancient cuisine. The reader feels like he's returning from Istanbul after turning that last page.