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Cover image for Birds of paradise : a novel
Birds of paradise : a novel

1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 2011.
Physical Description:
362 pages ; 25 cm
After a five year absence, an eighteen-year-old runaway returns to her family in Miami to deal with the guilty secret that caused her to flee.


Call Number
Abu-Jaber, D.

On Order



In the tropical paradise that is Miami, Avis and Brian Muir are still haunted by the disappearance of their ineffably beautiful daughter, Felice, who ran away when she was thirteen. Now, after five years of modeling tattoos, skateboarding, clubbing, and sleeping in a squat house or on the beach, Felice is about to turn eighteen. Her family--Avis, an exquisitely talented pastry chef; Brian, a corporate real estate attorney; and her brother, Stanley, the proprietor of Freshly Grown, a trendy food market--will each be forced to confront their anguish, loss, and sense of betrayal. Meanwhile, Felice must reckon with the guilty secret that drove her away, and must face her fear of losing her family and her sense of self forever.This multilayered novel about a family that comes apart at the seams--and finds its way together again--is totally involving and deeply satisfying, a glorious feast of a book.

Author Notes

Diana Abu-Jaber is the award-winning author of four novels, including Crescent, and two memoirs, Life Without a Recipe and The Language of Baklava. She and her family divide time between Miami, Florida, and Portland, Oregon.

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

Abu-Jaber's fourth novel (after Origin) is a stunning portrayal of a damaged family. Five years before, at 13, beautiful Felice Muir ran away from home and her mother, Avis, father, Brian, and older brother, Stanley, to live on the streets of Miami. Avis relies on sporadic meetings with her daughter although Felice often neglects to appear. When Brian thinks of Felice, he focuses on the past: "In that warm salty night, he felt as if the texture of time itself were thickening, settling over them, as if they would be held together in the froth of air, its silky threads attaching and keeping them safe, everlasting family." Work keeps all of them absorbed: Avis is an expert pastry chef, Brian a real estate lawyer haunted by Miami's gentrification, Stanley the owner of a popular organic food shop, and even Felice has occasional modeling gigs that bring in small influxes of cash. Felice has left them, but her parents and brother are also alienated from one other as they mark the passage of time and reflect on Felice's upcoming 18th birthday. Abu-Jaber's effortless prose, fully fleshed characters, and a setting that reflects the adversity in her protagonists' lives come together in a satisfying and timely story. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Review

Abu-Jaber (Origin, 2007, etc.) uses a plot staple of standard-issue domestic melodramaa family dealing with a runaway daughterto develop a meticulous, deeply moving portrayal of imperfect human beings struggling to do right.Miami, churning with money, steamy energy and clashing cultures shortly before the recent real-estate crash, is the evocative setting. Elite pastry chef Avis Muir and her husband Brian, a corporate lawyer for a big developer, remain in crisis five years after their stunningly beautiful daughter Felice ran away. Still in Miami, Felice has met briefly with her mother a handful of times, but neither her father nor older brother Stanley, whom Avis always neglected in her obsession with Felice, has seen her since she was 13. As a hurricane approaches, the characters are buffeted by their own internal storms. Increasingly brittle and withdrawn, Avis finds herself drawn to a mysterious Haitian neighbor with her own terrible family secrets. Passive Brian, overwhelmed with his sense of failure as husband and father, is tempted both to have an affair and to invest in a cockamamie real estate deal. Stanley, always underrated by his parents, is now the charismatic proprietor of a wildly popular organic market he fears he may lose to encroaching development. About to turn 18, Felice is outgrowing her life as a street kid but believes she must stay away from home to punish herself for past acts. Glorious descriptions, both of nature and Avis's mouthwatering pastry, offset yet intensify the jagged emotions of the Muirs.In this provocative exploration of the fault lines of loyalty and guilt, Abu-Jaber's searing perceptions, particularly about parents and children, more than make up for a less than convincing ending or an occasional lapse into overlabored prose.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

Versatile Abu-Jaber follows her imaginative foray into crime fiction in Origin (2007) with an exploration into the effects a teen's desertion has on her Miami family. At 13, Avis and Brian Muir's daughter, Felice, inexplicably started running away from home. Finally forced to accept their daughter's refusal to return home, Avis, a pastry chef, anxiously awaits her daughter's infrequent calls while Brian, a real-estate attorney, refuses to have anything to do with Felice. The couple's older child, Stanley, shares his mother's passion for food, but his interests don't especially please either parent, and his teen years were largely overshadowed by his sister's rebellion. Abu-Jaber drops the reader in on the Muir family just as Felice is about to turn 18, gradually revealing why Felice felt compelled to run away and how the reverberations of her actions are still affecting the rest of her family. Felice's contemplation of her future coincides with a big announcement of Stanley's regarding his own, sending yet another ripple through the family. Abu-Jaber's new novel is nuanced and deftly drawn.--Huntley, Kristine Copyright 2010 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

MIAMI comes alive in "Birds of Paradise," a lush new novel by Diana Abu-Jaber, the author of a culinary memoir ("The Language of Baklava") and three previous novels ("Arabian Jazz," "Crescent" and "Origin"). From the verdant streets of Coral Gables to the back lots of Little Haiti and the seedy underbelly of Miami Beach, the metropolis is floridly; meticulously detailed. Its every breath and scent, its hallucinations, its beckoning torpor, the ambitions and accents of its inhabitants become as impossible to resist as a postprandial siesta in the tropics. ("Hurricane season. The trees have grown dense as rooftops; the plumerías hold their flower-tipped branches up like brides with golden corsages.") These luxuriant atmospherics are backdrop to the story of the Muirs, a fractured, afflicted, hapless - that is to say, sadly typical - American family. There's Brian, an Ivy League-educated real estate lawyer whose growing disaffection with his life has him flirting with a sexy Cuban colleague and potentially ruinous financial dealings. His wife, Avis, is an imperiously Gallic-style baker for whom perfect millefeuilles are akin to religious transcendence; the physicality and perfectionism of her work serve to imperfectly insulate her against the burdens she carries. Their son, Stanley, the most stoical and neglected of the clan, owns a trendy organic grocery south of the city. And then there's the ethereally beautiful Felice, approaching her 18th birthday as a longtime runaway on the streets of Miami Beach, and around whom much of the novel's action and emotional preoccupations revolve. "Birds of Paradise" unfolds in a round-robin of uneven chapters, each told from the point of view of one of the Muirs. Felice hijacks the novel from the rest of her family. Her chapters are the most riveting, spiky with details and edged with almost unbelievable danger. In contrast, the other characters feel stilted, forced into stale life. The father's midlife crisis. His and Avis's strained marriage. Stanley's determination to forge his own path after his sister's disappearance, which renders him nearly invisible. Perhaps this makes sense. The family's shattered existences are all they have left to pick over after Felice inexplicably takes off at age 13. A solar system without her at its white-hot center, it seems, is a grim galaxy indeed. As we struggle along with Felice's parents and brother to make sense of her vanishing act, we can't wait to get back to Felice, to roll along with her on her beat-up skateboard ("the board is the best place for her to be, her head empty and clear, ... the street rumbling through the wheels under her feet"), meet the other sassy "outdoor kids" and the boy who loves her and may just save her ("She feels sorry for him, he's such a transparent, white-guy color"). We anxiously accompany her as she drops acid, considers modeling jobs, wakes up on the beach after another night of drinking and clubbing, gets into cars with the wrong kind of people. An interminable 61 pages separates Felice's first chapter from her second, and nearly 50 come between her second and too-short third. In between, the novel plods on with her family's soul-searching and late stages of grief. Her mother's despair is measured by the steady thwok of her wooden mixing spoon, the rolling out of sugar crusts, the daylong labor of gâteaux St Honoré. But no matter how luscious the descriptions of her pastries - and they are mouthwatering - Avis comes across as brittle and self-contained. There is no real sense of her mothering, only of her loss and a kind of martyred narcissism. Even a brief connection with a mysterious Haitian neighbor is mired in dialogue stiff as overly beaten egg whites: "Sugar is like a compass," the neighbor says. "It points to trouble." At times, the pile-on of descriptions and metaphors (in Avis's sections especially) render the novel's images hazy, as if they'd been faded by too much sunlight, by Miami itself. Or the prose overheats to the point where even a delivery boy can refer to voodoo as "religion with extenuating circumstances." Occasionally, Abu-Jaber offers sharp insights about her characters, describing Avis as someone who "knew all about beauty and almost nothing of utility." Brian's discontent is "a gradual, almost metaphysical condition, seeping in, mineralizing his bones." While the Muirs strive to come to terms with Felice's disappearance, sifting through anger, resentment and plain hard work, after five long years, they are dazed and depleted, victims of her absence. In chronicling the loss of one teenager and the lonely bitterness left in her wake, Abu-Jaber seems to suggest we are much diminished without our "beloved missing." That said, the impetus for Felice's radical departure (even for a radical adolescent) remains frustratingly, teasingly out of reach for most of the novel and strains credulity once we learn it. Felice stubbornly lives out her gritty existence as a solemn oath of self-punishment, one she never speaks of (that's part of the penance). She has missed out on high school, lives only a few miles from her parents, yet somehow manages to stay relatively safe, and is still gorgeous enough (we're told over and over again) to be a perennial candidate for modeling jobs. Are the stakes any higher because Felice is so beautiful? While Avis tried furiously to track down her daughter and now very rarely gets to see her, the family's resignation, however uneasy, is hard to swallow. In the end, the indisputable stars of "Birds of Paradise" are Felice and Miami itself, with its obliterating light, its "perfumed flames" of vegetation, the grand theater of its skies, its "ranning currents of Spanish." Miami and Felice mirror each other, getting under our skin, making us sweat to soaking. Abu-Jaber has captured Miami's insiders and outsiders, the ordinary and the outlandish, the hype, the hurricanes, the hoopla. This, perhaps, is her greatest achievement in a novel of mixed success. A family's shattered existences are all they have left to pick over after a daughter runs away. Cristina García's most recent novels are "The Lady Matador's Hotel" and "Dreams of Significant Girls." She is a professor of creative writing at Texas Tech University.

Library Journal Review

Award-winning author and professor Abu-Jaber has created a multilayered tale of teenage runaway Felice Muir and her family's efforts to cope with her absence. Chapters alternate among different points of view as Felice, her mother, her father, and her older brother speak not only of their confusion and concerns regarding their family and a search for the motivation behind Felice's exodus but provide a broader social commentary on issues such as culture clash, teenage rebellion, and the politics of food production. Actor/singer/director Tamara Marston's strong delivery provides the characters with distinct voices, helping to make the richly developed and intriguing cast of players as well as the delicious words come alive. ["Whether it's the creation of evanescent confections or the drug-ridden life of the streets, award-winning writer Abu-Jaber (Origin) impressively describes vastly different worlds with equal expertise," read the starred review of the Norton hc, LJ 8/11; the Norton pb will publish in May 2012.-Ed.]-Denise A. Garofalo, Mount Saint Mary Coll. Lib., Newburgh, NY (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.