Thursday, September 8, 2011

Diana Abu-Jaber captures a family’s grief and a cookie’s soul

Birds of Paradise
by Diana Abu-Jaber

Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In Diana Abu-Jaber’s fourth novel, the Muirs of Miami are a deeply unhappy family. The tale is set in the days leading up to daughter, Felice’s, 18th birthday. Her mother, Avis, is a talented pastry chef, running a high-end bakery out of their home. Her father, Brian, is a successful real estate attorney. And at 23, her older brother, Stanley, is running a business he’s passionate about. These are privileged people with every reason to be content, but when Felice was only 13 years old, she ran away from home. She didn’t run far. She’s still in Miami, a “beach kid,” sleeping outdoors or squatting in houses. But there’s been virtually no contact with her family since she left, and it’s torn them apart.

This is not a story of abuse or addiction—although there is abuse and there are drugs in her story. No, Felice was a supremely lovely and loved child being raised by flawed, but essentially good, people. And part of the suspense of the novel is the motivation for Felice’s actions. No one can understand why this young girl went off the rails. At one point her father asks himself:

“What. What should he and Avis have done? Put their girl’s face on a milk carton?
Missing: Felice Muir, Age 13.
Kidnapped by herself.
Motivation: Unknown
What child does such a thing as that? Could she have been that unhappy?”

The story is told in chapters that alternate between Avis’s, Brian’s, and Felice’s points of view, until Stanley has his say near the novel’s end. Based on this overly simple summary, Birds of Paradise sounds like a Lifetime original movie. Nothing could be further from the truth! Diana Abu-Jaber is a lush, evocative novelist capturing subtle emotions and interplays amongst her characters. There is all the grief and confusion you would expect of a family in this situation, but beyond the family unit, there are dangerous friendships and complicated interactions. There is so much happening on so many levels.

Abu-Jaber captures the atmospheric otherness of her setting. (“She remembers how Hannah hated everything about Miami—even some of the best things, like the hooked-nosed white ibises roaming around in the grass and the flowers that blew up into winter foliage—a tree or bush opening overnight into flower like perfumed flames.”) And not just the exotic physicality of the place, but the uneasy clash of cultures. (“She’d felt disorientation strong as vertigo after they’d first moved to Miami—as if her magnetic poles had been switched. The drivers were appalling, punching their horns, running reds, cutting each other off like sworn enemies. There were certain shops and restaurants one would not wish to enter unless one spoke Spanish—and not at her halting, college intermediate level, either. There were whole neighborhoods and sections of town where she felt scrutinized and sized up. How many times had she waited by counters while salespeople went in search of ‘the one’ who spoke English?”)

Another reviewer described the novel as layered, and that is apt. On the surface, you have the story being told, the family drama. But in other layers, you’ve got the all kinds of subtext—the psychology of the characters, the social commentary, the time and the place. And there are external stressors ratcheting up tension as the book progresses: a husband’s temptation, the danger of the streets, financial crises, and physical jeopardy.

The language is as sumptuous as the rich desserts that Avis creates, and fans of the author won’t be surprised by the attention she lavishes on food within the text. Again, beyond mere description, the reader must ponder what is being said about sustenance, nurturing, creativity, privilege. The novel’s opening sentence reads, “A cookie, Avis told her children, is a soul.” Things are often more than they may at first seem in Abu-Jaber’s adept hands. A cookie is more than a cookie, and a family is more than the tragedy that defines it.

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