BIRDS OF PARADISE by Diana Abu-Jaber

Book Quote:

“Four – almost five – years of erratic visits – perhaps twelve visits in all. No, Avis corrects herself; she has not lost track after all. There have been eight visits to date, no more no less. She has seen her daughter exactly eight times since she turned thirteen.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (SEP 15, 2011)

Birds of Paradise by Diana Abu-Jaber is a richly layered and beautifully written novel. It is akin to an archeological dig – each layer uncovering unexpected treasures. The book begins five years before Hurricane Katrina hit and ends during its aftermath.

The gist of the novel is about a family living in Coral Gables, Florida. The chapters are told from the viewpoints of different family members. Felice, the protagonist of the novel, is a thirteen year-old runaway who, at first, runs away repeatedly and is brought back by the police or social services. At some point before she turns fourteen, she leaves her home for good, leaving a distraught, broken family behind.

Felice manages to survive in Miami by doing odd modeling jobs, living in “the Green House” with other run-aways, and hanging out at clubs and partying. She is incomprehensibly beautiful, often compared to the young Elizabeth Taylor. She has run away to atone for a crime she believes she has committed which becomes clear as the story progresses.

Avis, Felice’s mother, is a baker – but not any baker. She has trained with French chefs at one of the best culinary arts programs in the United States. “She knew how to blow sugar into glassine nests and birds and fountains, how to construct seven-tiered wedding cakes draped with sugar curtains copied from the tapestries at Versailles…She studied Audubon and Redoute.”  When she had a show of her work at Cornell, where she interned, her own mother commented that the exhibit was “amusant.” In Florida, she has a baking business that she runs from home. “She could charge almost any price and customers seemed to consider it a privilege to pay it.” All of this came with a price for her, too. For years she was so busy baking that she had little time to see her son, daughter, or husband.

Felice’s father, Brian, is an attorney for a land acquisition firm. His firm buys land, develops it, and then flips it. He misses Avis and is drawn strongly to a co-worker.  He is losing his moral compass at this job. At one point, he is about to buy into one of the company’s land deals so that he can raise some capital for his son, Stanley’s, business.

Stanley dropped out of college to start a grocery based on local organic farming and green foods. His venture has become a phenomenal success but he sees his parents rarely, feeling like he lives in the shadow of his missing sister. Felice left when he was eighteen. He started college but felt like the real world was where he wanted to be. For years, he could not get into a car without looking for Felice.

Avis has seen Felice infrequently during the five years she has been gone. Most of these visits are when Felice needs money. She and Avis meet at a café and chat. Avis is careful not to touch Felice which would chase her away. As the book opens, Avis is waiting for Felice at a restaurant for hours and Felice never shows up.

This book deals with many themes. Obviously, food plays a big part. Avis is focused on the beauty of her creations, Stanley runs a specialized food market, and many of Felice’s friends suffer from anorexia or bulimia. While Avis is enamored of her beautiful pastries, “she didn’t really approve of food.”  She is smitten by the beauty of a pastry that looks like a replica of a cathedral but regular food makes her ill.

The book also deals with adolescents and the way they interact. Girls are known for their meanness through words and banishment and this book looks closely at the way that girls are cruel to one another.

Those of us who have kept up with real estate news know that Florida has been very hard hit by a depression due to its boom and bust housing market. Both Fort Meyer and Port St. Lucie in Florida are two of the hardest hit cities in the country due to flipping and the bust in real estate. Brian’s work puts him right in the middle of this.

The book is riveting and the writing is as lush as the Florida foliage. Abu-Jaber is an artist of the highest caliber and this is definitely one of the top ten books I have read this year.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 53 readers
PUBLISHER: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (September 6, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Diana Abu-Jaber
EXTRAS: NPR audio on Birds of Paradise
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September 15, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Contemporary, Family Matters, Florida, y Award Winning Author

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