Birds of Paradise: Diana Abu Jaber

Mother, father, sister, brother, all living together in Coral Gables, Florida. Mother is a world-class pastry chef who works as a stay-at-home baker and caterer. Father is a real estate attorney. Brother and sister are bright young adults. What could be more picture-perfect than life among those elegant fowls who give their names to this novel, Birds of Paradise (W.W. Norton 2011)?

Diana Abu Jaber‘s latest book shares an intimate, food-caressing look at one family’s recipe for troubles in paradise. Even a sweet life can run into trouble, cautions her tale. Add a few years of self-absorption, a little teenage angst, and a suicide. Find out what it takes to ruin a perfect dish.

Abu Jaber’s characters have inner life that lifts them right out of the page. Food helps drive at least two of them, so its role is integral, but this is not remotely a novel with food for food’s sake. Food — particularly sugar — forms a part of life in this story. Sugar is in the mother’s pastry. Sugar is a main crop of Cuba, where so many residents have come from. It accentuates the motif of the sweet life in Florida.

Part of Abu Jaber’s magic is subtle story-telling. She makes you hunger to learn more about her characters and see the plot reveal itself. She draws you in so close — you might even miss the communication breakdown that looms ever wider between her characters. No matter how many multi-layers you can taste at once (on the first go, at least), the denouement wii pull you all the more closely to those characters.

Another part of Abu Jaber’s magic is a subtle sharing of herself. Quietly, she pours loves in her life into the pages: bits of her own family story, bits of her life in Florida, food, and her own astute observations of issues like racial tension. Carefully concocted, Diana Abu Jaber’s Birds of Paradise is a feast that is easily one of the year’s best novels — food or no.

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