Okay, I'm going to tell it as it is. Nobel-winning writer aside, this book is insufferable. I frankly don't understand the hype, the glowing reviews, attention from the New Yorker - this book is bad. Really bad.
The story revolves around a privileged man in Istanbul who has a short affair with a shopgirl and proceeds to become completely obsessed with her. So obsessed is he that after the girl marries someone else, he ends up sitting at their dinner table for the next 8 years.
When Kemal is not hopping around the latest upper-class Istanbul hotspots, he's becoming an expert kleptomaniac, pocketing everything around Füsun's house. He reports back about his activities with glee - "After having taken all those matchboxes, and Fusun's cigarette butts, and the saltshakers, the coffee cups, the hairpins, and the barrettes - things not difficult to pick up, because people rarely notice them missing - I began to set my sights on things like ashtrays, cups, and slippers…" Several pages later, we find out that "during my eight years of going to the Keskins' for supper, I was able to squirrel away 4,213 of Fusun's cigarette buts. Each one of these had touched her rosy lips and entered her mouth, some even touching her tongue and becoming moist [shock of all shocks!] as I would discover when I put my finger on the filter soon after she had stubbed the cigarette out; the stubs, reddened by her lovely lipstick, bore the unique impress of her lips at some moment whose memory was laden with anguish or bliss…"
There are plenty of signs that Kemal's obsession is not well received. Going back to cigarette stubbing, we find out that "sometimes she would stub it out with evident anger, sometimes with impatience. I had seen her stub out a cigarette in anger many times, and this caused me disquiet."
This might be an interesting storyline if it wasn't the same old hogwash repeating itself for 560 pages. There are entire chapters of this. Allow me to list out some chapter names for you: "The Melancholy of Autumn" is followed by "Cold and Lonely November Days". A few chapters later, there is a chapter titled "An Indignant and Broken Heart Is of No Use to Anyone."
Other reviewers have tried to find beauty in this book by its descriptions of Istanbul in the 1970's. Some have claimed that Pamuk's "museum" is a commemoration of a time and a place in Istanbul and that the book tries to showcase a lost culture. I disagree. Sure there are a few pages scattered here and there about Istanbul, and sure, the writing does shine in a few small segments. But the vast majority of the book is about Fusun's lips, tears, anger, family, dinners, cigarette butts, marriage, saltshakers, eyes, expressions and words. These discourses have only the most tangential relation to anything enlightening about 1970's Istanbul.
There is a disconcerting conceit about the author, when he introduces himself as a character - "This is how I came to seek out the esteemed Orhan Pamuk, who has narrated the story in my name and with my approval… I had also heard that he was a man lovingly devoted to his work and who took storytelling seriously." There is a lot more self-advertising in this book, but I won't delve into it. Suffice it to say that I really suffered through this book and would have abandoned it were it not so bad that I spent most of my time thinking about how I would justify such a critical review of such a well-hyped book.