Sunday, February 20, 2011

Location, Location, Location: The Oracle of Stamboul

Michael David Lukas’s The Oracle of Stamboul is a costume drama of a book, a fairytale-like story about one Eleanora Cohen, a fictional girl born in 1877, to the accompaniment of omens, including the presence of a flock of hoopoes. Eleanora’s mother dies in childbirth, and her rug merchant father marries her mother’s sister, who prefers that Eleanora learn housework instead of reading. But Eleanora reads, and she follows advice about following one’s heart that she gleans in her favorite book: Eleanora stows away on her father’s voyage to Stamboul, where she becomes a polyglot child prodigy and is invited to advise the sultan on important matters.

Publisher HarperCollins calls The Oracle of Stamboul “evocative,” which it is. Lukas describes settings, food, and clothing in intimate detail, making me crave Turkish coffee, pomegranate juice, and fresh flatbread. And his accounts of Eleanora’s love for reading are rather sweet: the girl’s favorite book is The Hourglass, a novel that is, as far I can tell, purely fictional.

Though Lukas generally writes consistently in a genial, sometimes old-fashioned style and fully convinced me he’d done his research, I can’t say he convinced me of Eleanora’s role in the history within this historical novel. The book’s plot turns felt predictable – most of them are obvious from the publisher’s description anyway – and character development suffers at the expense of all the vivid settings. Readers who enjoy rich descriptions with a magical flock of birds thrown in will love The Oracle of Stamboul.

For my part, I read The Oracle of Stamboul as a book about reading and knowledge rather than a book about history or a talented little girl. I held on to a small detail simply because it’s Russian: early in the book, Eleanora’s father holds up a copy of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin to prevent Russian soldiers from pillaging his house. The book, a classic Russian poem-as-novel, functions like a protective icon. Later in the book Eleanora finds solace and advice in books. Her beloved Hourglass is the true oracle of the book, inspiring Eleanora to continue a reading career that progresses to ancient classics, recognize life’s paths and plans, and make decisions.

The Oracle of Stamboul stimulates the senses of sight, smell, and taste more than the intellect, and I think the retro language and Eleanora’s flock of birds feel too mannered... but sometimes there’s something to be said for an easy-reading, escapist book that offers the warmth of Stamboul, along with that thick Turkish coffee, in the middle of a cold, snowy Maine winter.

Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of The Oracle of Stamboul from publisher HarperCollins. Thank you!

Up next: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day.

Photo credit: Hoopoe in Israel, portrait from MathKnight and Zachi Evenor, via Wikipedia.


  1. interesting. my reading of historical novels is not wide. I however loved Sand Daughter by Sarah Bryant. thanks for this review

  2. Thank you, as always, for your comment, Nana! I don't think I read a lot of historical novels either... though War and Peace is my all-time favorite book. I guess I also tend not to think of novels as "historical" unless the history is the dominant factor in the book with, say, real figures as characters and mentions of lots of specifics of historical events.

    I'd never heard of Sarah Bryant, though she is originally from my state, Maine!

  3. I'm looking forward to reading this one - I'm scheduled to review it soon. I love getting swept up in a different world completely!

  4. I hope you enjoy it, Coffee and a Book Chick!

  5. i am a fellow Harper reader-blogger. i LOVED this book but def more as a story about books and a girl than about history. if you are so inclined, here's my review:

  6. Thank you adding the link, clg1213. I'm glad you enjoyed the book and was interested to read your impressions of it!