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.