I was a Rushdie virgin before recently reading The Enchantress of Florence (though Midnight's Chldren remains very high on my to-read list). But the combination of Italy and India--a commerce between East and West--was too much to resist.
You'll have to forgive the cliched pun, but the book really is quite spell-binding. Central to the tale is the power of story, and the book is layered with stories upon stories, as well as some delightful miniatures packed into the story (such as the marvelous tale about the royal painter, Dashwanth). It is also concerned with competing stories and competing story-tellers who constitute the world by their stories (and thus constitute different worlds by different stories). Story-telling is world-making. Rushdie's exploration is concerned with both the power of mythologies but also the power of the artist--the story-telling power of the prophet as well as the world-making power of the novelist.
But he's also exploring the dangers of stories, their enchanting spell, their seductive ability to lure us into illusions. In fact, the book performs this very quickly: one feels swept into a dizzying array of narratives with charms that steal the ground from beneath us--and yet this narratival vertigo is so enchanting, we delight in our disorientation. And yet, this only works to the extent that Rushdie is an enchanter.
I wouldn't have expected that such a ruthless secularist could create such an enchanted, magical world. The prose is blazing without being precious, and as Christopher Hitchens has recently pointed out, Rushdie is a brilliant humorist.
My only gripe is that the book at times devolves to a propaganda-like tract--a move that is death for art. (In this respect it reminded me of a similar tract posing as a novel, Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy). Here we have a descendent of Ghengis Khan with the emerging irenic, democratic sensibilities of, well, Salman Rushdie. We have women from sixteenth-century Hindustan who imagine the world like Susan Sontag. In short, at times the novel is so concerned to be an apologia for a de-religionized, "secular" and liberal world that its anachronism becomes just a bit too much to swallow. Nonetheless, the power of Rushdie's story-telling opens up worlds that repay revisiting.