Rumi-Nations: Juggling Persian Poets and the Dalai Lama


Museum curator Promise Whittaker can keep three objects in motion without dropping a single one. Juggling a stuffed animal, a ball, and a toy truck in exchange for her son and daughter agreeing to go to bed, “she gave herself over to the toss and snag,” writes Mary Kay Zuravleff, whose previous novel
The Frequency of Souls featured an engineer in love with a co-worker who uses antique equipment to tune into the radio waves of the dead. The apt if slightly overdone central metaphor re-enacts Promise’s management of two kids, pregnancy, dog, and appointment to the position of acting director at her beleaguered institution, a fictionalized version of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. The author, too, engages in a kind of juggling—tossing and snagging a number of differently scaled plots, including a directive to convert the museum into a food court (Gallery XIII is set to be a Kabob Hut), a colleague embezzling travel funds to pay for fertility treatments, a kidnapping on the other side of the globe, and a slightly hard-to-follow homosexual double cross.

An accomplished entertainer, Zuravleff understands that it doesn’t really matter to us whether a public appearance by the Dalai Lama will save the institution; we’re here for the “Hello Dalai” jokes. In other words, the ability to maintain the off-kilter rhythm of her plots counts less than being able to distract the reader with a steady stream of witticisms and ruminations. Make that “Rumi-nations,” as in the 13th-century Persian poet whose ecstatic verse Promise ingeniously applies to dilemmas everyday and extraordinary. Promise’s engagement with her specialty is too deep to be a stunt, and her knack for making connections between, for example, a Rumi manuscript and a cupcake recipe should send readers to the library looking for poetry—which isn’t a bad trick at all.