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 “
” 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.