Sibel, the modern, Sorbonne-educated daughter of a Turkish diplomat, notices a designer handbag in a boutique window in Istanbul's fashionable Nisantasi district. The attentive gaze of her lover (and soon-to-be fiancé) Kemal strays to the shop's starkly beautiful assistant, Füsun, who turns out to be his cousin, distantly remembered from childhood parties. Kemal quickly renews their acquaintance, generously offering to coach her for an imminent maths exam. Each day for six weeks in the spring of 1975 he meets 18 year-old Füsun at his mother's disused flat, where arithmetic swiftly yields to the sudden alchemy ' of eager, exuberant sex. Thirty-year-old Kemal delights in her perceived naivety: "When we made love she was able to give herself over to pleasure completely... with the enthusiasm of a child given a wonderful new toy."
Kemal deflects any anguish from these secret trysts until the night of his engagement to Sibel, at a lavish high-society party at the Istanbul Hilton, where Füsun, recklessly invited at the last minute, despairs of Kemal's deceitful inertia and withdraws from their affair. Kemal is consumed by jealousy while Sibel, devoted and tolerant but aware something is amiss, becomes increasingly alarmed by her new fiancé's drunken moodiness.
From this fresh and vigorous opening, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk's narrative arc steadily declines into the doldrums of Kemal's burgeoning mystery illness – a "lovesickness" for his defiant shop-girl that eventually causes an angry and insulted Sibel to return her engagement ring. Unfortunately, the lethargic weight of Kemal's pining for Füsun and his dogged pursuit of her in the ensuing decade has a stultifying effect on Pamuk's elegantly phrased, eloquently translated, but massive and slow-paced new novel.
Kemal claims to be "the anthropologist" of his own experience as he unfolds his memoir, incidentally introducing artefacts that he has pilfered from his association with Füsun, for which he claims near-Proustian qualities of stimulated recollection: an earring, postcards, a salt-shaker, a toilet doorknob... but the collection of 4,213 cigarette stubs that have touched her lips ring alarm bells of obsession.
Far more interesting than the creeping progress of Kemal's shabby suit is Pamuk's underlying theme of the relative position of men and women in Turkey, and the conflict of modern, liberal lifestyles with a traditional society only thinly overlaid by Ataturk's secularism. Kemal's "insular and intimate" circle of rich families ostensibly subscribes to a westernised notion of female emancipation but, as Sibel later laments, "why, in a country like this, did we live openly as a couple, without being married?"
The public ridicule of Kemal's unguarded behaviour compromises his fiancée, making her vulnerable to traditional slurs in a culture where "a young woman's virginity is of the utmost importance to her... even if Sibel didn't care, society did". Discreet affairs would honour the liberal compact, Pamuk seems to suggest, but openly indulging in pre-marital sex and then withdrawing from the promise of wedlock remains a heinous and socially damaging breach of trust.
Füsun's unrealised ambitions to become a film actress explore similar ideas of the transgressive position of women in the public domain, but Kemal's highly partial efforts to assist her career serve only to anchor his own solipsistic personality.
Mostly Pamuk's characters are sharp and bright, but Kemal languishes rather unsympathetically within an insulating bubble of self-absorption that is undisturbed by the exciting (but far too fleeting) references to martial law, coffee-house bombings and political assassinations. The sheer narcissism of his decade of collecting Füsun-touched ephemera saps energy from an over-long, uneventful novel and, by introducing the destiny of those artefacts at the outset – a physical museum immortalising his love – Pamuk reveals that Kemal survives his lover, thereby leaking a fair amount of narrative suspense from his dénouement.