BIRDS OF PARADISE BY DIANA ABU-JABER

BIRDS OF PARADISE
Diana Abu-Jaber
W. W. Norton, New York
ISBN 978-0-393-06461-2
September 2011
$25.95 hardback ($30 Canada)
368 pages

Birds of Paradise

Diana Abu-Jaber’s fourth novel charms with delectable prose, vividly unique characterizations, and an exquisitely-rendered Miami setting, even as it wrenches the reader through a plot involving a family damaged by the voluntary disappearance of a thirteen-year-old girl. Our hearts and our appetites are stimulated by this extraordinary quest to the heart of family connections.

Abu Jaber’s Miami is a dazzling blend of Eden and the Mad Queen’s Wonderland, both graced with the natural bounty of fertile soil and teeming sea, and patrolled by human sharks with a taste for blood and excess. Her protagonists plot a course that brings us perilously close to all its edges. The financially successful and inventively gifted Avis and Brian Muir are enmeshed in a world of gourmet cuisine and predatory business law, respectively, while their teenaged daughter inhabits a world of skinhead-infested flop houses, wayward skate boarders, and electric nightclub lights, supporting herself with occasional modeling gigs while she hides from her parents. Her brother, Stanley, an entrepreneurial organic food purveyor, stands aside and watches the emotional mayhem.

Avis, an expert pastry chef who is always elbow-deep in crème fraiche, snowy mounds of lemon peel, and lavender-scented blueberries, is bewildered but faithful enough to take heart and gingembre en cristal in hand for every infrequent rendezvous arranged on her daughter’s terms. Brian, a real estate attorney working for developers whose plundering of the landscape and neighborhoods makes him cringe, despairs, also, but in a different way: he toys with the possibilities of infidelity and spiking the salacious deals that allow him to keep the facade of success. Stanley, rejected from his mother’s kitchen and squeezed from the spotlight by his beautiful younger sister, builds a life as far away from his parents’ as he can imagine. Felice, is an enigma: why would a daughter who is loved and treasured, who has the gifts of beauty and brains and a luxurious home, want to live on the streets?

“A cookie . . . is a soul, ” Avis says to her children when they are small. ” you think it looks like a tiny thing, right? Just a little nothing. But then you take a bite.”

Every member of this mangled family has a soul that shines light on what it means to love and cherish others. Abu-Jaber shows us not just her character’s thoughts, but also the ingredients that made them. She is at her best divining the myriad interconnections and split-second impressions that determine emotional choices, and, thus, fate. Avis, tried to a degree that the reader can hardly bear as she prepares for the meetings that Felice cannot be depended on to remember, numbly recalls all the ways she tried to avoid repeating the mistakes of her own neglectful mother. She will not allow that disconnect between herself and her own children. She will marzipan their world. Her two children respond in vastly different ways.

In her kitchen, Avis is in control. Perhaps too much so, as she drives Stanley away when he tries to give her the close bond she longs for with her daughter. But when a neighbor’s screeching exotic bird disturbs her carefully-constructed world of pâtés and crème Chantilly, Avis storms off to confront her, and finds in Solange a will more indomitable than her own, as well as a retreat that entices her away from ringing phones and delivery vans.

We divide our time as readers between Avis’ domestic kingdom and Felice’s skateboard and partying scene, with glimpses into Brian’s carefully controlled despair among cheating, lying denizens of his high rise office, and Stanley’s determined social responsibility. Food and flora create the paradise in which Avis comes to grips with her growing despair.

One of the pleasures of this novel is its toothsome complexity, as satisfying as one of Avis’ sugar-encrusted creations. None of the characters skates through a scene, not even Stanley’s overwhelming girlfriend or Brian’s conniving business associates: characters grapple, with each other, their dilemmas, their fates. Eventually, the family’s conflicts mount to a fever pitch as Felice’s eighteenth birthday and a hurricane approach in tandem. As her characters careen toward climactic encounters, Abu-Jaber shows us the imperfections in paradise and the hope that accompanies each step in its realization.

This may be the best work yet from the author of the critically acclaimed Arabian Jazz, Crescent, and the memoir, The Language of Baklava. Certainly, this novel belongs with the pantheon of authors–Connie May Fowler and Carl Hiaasen come to mind–who have used Florida’s bountiful setting as an element in their plumbing of the human soul. Writers will want to savor and deconstruct Abu-Jaber’s graceful prose. Foodies will be rapt by Abu-Jaber’s deft descriptions, and parents–present and potential–will find much to ponder here. Anyone who has ever wondered how young girls cope with the demands of a sex-obsessed society will want to put this one on their lists. And if you love South Florida, or any vision of paradise, come taste the sensations and swim with the sharks. Highly recommended.

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