Ron Charles reviews ‘Birds of Paradise,’ by Diana Abu-Jaber
By Ron Charles,
Diana Abu-Jaber’s delicious new novel weighs less than two pounds, but you may gain more than that by reading it. If you know her cream-filled work — especially “ Crescent ” and “The Language of Baklava” — you’re already salivating. This Jordanian American author writes about food so enticingly that her books should be published on sheets of phyllo dough. “Birds of Paradise” contains her most mouthwatering writing ever, but it’s no light after-dinner treat. This is a full-course meal, a rich, complex and memorable story that will leave you lingering gratefully at her table.
On the outside, the Muir family looks blessed. Brian is a prosperous Miami real estate lawyer; his wife, Avis, is a high-end pastry chef who can command whatever price she wants for her irresistible creations of sugar, butter and flour.
Beneath that glaze of success, though, Brian and Avis endure the kind of grinding terror that parents dread in their darkest late-night hours. Everyone loves the Muirs’ resourceful son, Stanley, who runs a popular organic grocery store, but most have forgotten their younger child, a strikingly beautiful girl who started running away at 13. Felice has made contact with her mother only eight times in the past five years, a starvation diet of affection that’s left Brian and Avis feeling “scoured-out,” unable even to cry anymore.
The novel opens as Avis is anxiously preparing for one of those rare get-togethers. “They meet only at Felice’s whim,” Abu-Jaber writes, “on Felice’s terms.” Her daughter gives Avis little advance warning and often doesn’t show up, a cruelly casual arrangement that flays Avis and leaves Brian “desiccated by anger.” Caught in a downdraft of “spiraling disappointment,” they constantly fight the temptation to blame each other for the destruction of their once-happy family. Maybe if Brian had been less strict; maybe if Avis had been more loving — a silent cycle of repressed accusation. Like good upper-middle-class people, both husband and wife seek solace in their work rather than each other, a self-reinforcing tendency that’s drained their marriage of intimacy.
“Birds of Paradise” rotates gracefully through these four family members, chapter by chapter, describing their lives with extraordinary sympathy and a remarkable command of their very different occupations. The respected head of his firm’s legal department, Brian once felt he had come to Miami to help build a great city, but now he realizes that he’s somehow become an advocate for everything his idealistic son opposes: the demolition and redevelopment of old neighborhoods, the destruction of cultural history, the sprawl of bland opulence. It’s 2005 in the months before Hurricane Katrina strikes, and the Florida real estate industry is gorging on borrowed money, “an act of both rebellion and willful perversity — like rebuilding a house on the train tracks.” But Brian is a good man, struggling to ignore his despair and follow his moral compass at a time when everyone around him is behaving like a fool or a crook.
Not surprisingly, the novel’s richest, most aromatic passages detail Avis’s work in the kitchen, where each of her pastries is “as delicately constructed as a piece of stained glass.” Desperate to palliate the heavy sense of guilt she feels for letting their daughter slip away, Avis throws herself into ever more gorgeous and ephemeral desserts. “She knew how to blow sugar into glassine nests and birds and fountains,” Abu-Jaber writes in prose spun just as lushly, “how to construct seven-tiered wedding cakes draped with sugar curtains copied from the tapestries at Versailles.”
In the well-stocked cabinet of this novel’s themes, all that sugar becomes an increasingly important ingredient. How much can hard work sweeten a life poisoned by a lost child? And how innocent, really, are Avis’s delectable pastries, her “evanescence of sugar and butter”? Her all-organic son regards his mother’s creations as an elite pollution of the food chain — environmentally and medically destructive.
Meanwhile, Avis’s new neighbor (the only artificial character in this novel) is an oracular Haitian woman who reminds her of the complicated role that sugar played in Haiti’s bloody history. But Avis can’t abandon the naive hope that she might please her daughter again, if only for a moment, with one of her sweet specialties: “tiny mosaic disks of chocolate flake and candied ginger.”
Abu-Jaber ran away from her father when she was 15, and she brings to Felice’s chapters a kind of visceral sympathy that’s wholly engrossing. Felice lives only a few miles away from her parents — in a flophouse near the beach — but she might as well be on another planet. Her world of runaways and drug addicts, prostitutes and beach bums vibrates with eroticism and menace. Tan, heroine-thin and startlingly gorgeous, Felice can make hundreds of dollars modeling or just sitting in a chic restaurant whenever she wants, but she doesn’t want much out of her dangerous life. With exquisite patience and psychological precision, Abu-Jaber unravels the mystery of the young woman’s decision to run from her home, destroy her parents’ happiness and remain constantly at risk.
In the wide grasp of this story, the author has captured a dynamic city defined by booms and busts and racial conflicts in a stew of different cultures. But with its searching portrayal of a single family in silent crisis, “Birds of Paradise” explores every parent’s unspoken fear: our children’s capacity to destroy us on a whim.
Fortunately, Abu-Jaber is no cynic, and this novel, though far more serious than her previous work, remains committed to the possibility of reconciliation in a way that sounds entirely believable. What seems at first like such a thoughtless act of self-destruction on Felice’s part turns out to be a desperate grasp for atonement. And you don’t want to miss it.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
birds of paradise By Diana Abu-Jaber Norton. 362 pp. $25.95