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Monday, December 19, 2011

Birds of Paradise

Birds of Paradise
Diana Abu-Jaber
W.W. Norton, 2011

Teenage runaway Felice has called her mother, Avis, to arrange a meeting. Avis is a self-employed pastry chef who uses the opportunity to create her daughter’s favorite cookie, a confection that takes hours to make. Felice’s father Brian disapproves of his wife agreeing to this meeting, to making the cookies, to getting her hopes up, again, after so many disappointments. Felice has not lived at home since she was 13 years old.

Told in alternating chapters, this is the story of a damaged family. The setting is pre-economic downturn Miami, when money flowed easily and real estate was king. From our standpoint of looking back from the future, however, we know that the financial good times will soon come to an end, causing as much havoc and turmoil as the hurricane that is fast approaching the city. Felice is soon to be 18, a legal adult, and she realizes that it may be time to grow up and take ownership of her emotional problems instead of running away from them. Meanwhile, Stanley, the older son and brother who has been neglected ever since her sister first ran away, is struggling himself, but he has trouble asking his parents for help. In fact, he has given up on asking his parents for much of anything.

As the storm approaches Miami, the family struggles to connect, both physically and emotionally. Avis is on the verge of a breakdown, Brian considers an extra-marital affair, Stanley feels powerless to help himself or his business, and Felice discovers love while almost losing her own life. And yet, through all the drama, I could not warm up to any of these characters. Felice’s reasons for running away, not revealed until almost the end, just didn’t add up. Avis and Brian have real pain, but Avis just can’t let go and Brian has totally given up. Stanley was the only one I could sympathize with – he was a true victim of the situation.

Sometimes I feel uplifted after reading a good story; other times the story doesn’t move me. This is one of those times that I am left shrugging my shoulders, feeling neither good nor bad about the plot, characters, setting, or tone of this title. It was just okay – not memorable but not horrible either.


Other novels by this author:
Crescent (2003)
Origin (2007)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Dearly Departed by Elinor Lipman (2001)
The untimely death of her single mother, Margaret Batten, brings Sunny back to small-town King George, New Hampshire, the scene of her unhappy adolescence, where she discovers old family secrets and a possible half-brother she never knew she had.

Trespass by Valerie Martin (2007)
Chloe Dales's growing dislike of her college-age son Toby's romantic relationship with Salome Drago, a Croatian refugee who is a seductive but somehow toxic blend of the old world and the new, threatens to alienate her from her tolerant husband and besotted son.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards (2005)
In a tale spanning twenty-five years, a doctor delivers his newborn twins during a snowstorm and, rashly deciding to protect his wife from their baby daughter's affliction with Down Syndrome, turns her over to a nurse, who secretly raises the child.

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