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More than Baklava: Diana Abu-Jaber’s ambitious new novel rises like a perfectly timed souffle

September 8, 2011

Diana Abu-Jaber labors forevermore under that special curse befalling only those novelists who prove they can write well about food. Even the most admiring of reviewers, like the Washington Post’s Ron Charles, now find culinary metaphors too tasty to resist.

For a list of upcoming activities at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, visit the center’s website. And mark your calendar: This year’s Miami Book Fair International runs Nov. 13-20.

Abu-Jaber, who has become a prominent figure in the Miami literary community over the past decade, debuts her new novel, Birds of Paradise, at Books & Books in Coral Gables this evening. Mostly this is a drama about an affluent family struggling with a runaway daughter, but, as in Abu-Jaber’s most famous book, The Language of Baklava, food is a powerful presence.

The mother in the family, Avis, is a famed Miami pastry chef, while the son, Stanley, runs a trendy local co-op market. True, the father, Brian, is a formerly idealistic corporate real estate attorney, troubled by the heedless building boom of the early 2000s, while the daughter, Felice, is a homeless rebel surviving on the streets of Miami Beach.

But that food connection is all Charles needs to open his WaPo review — a thorough-going rave — like this:

“Diana Abu-Jaber’s delicious new novel weighs less than two pounds, but you may gain more than that by reading it. If you know her cream-filled work — especially Crescent  and The Language of Baklava — you’re already salivating. This Jorda­­nian American author writes about food so enticingly that her books should be published on sheets of phyllo dough. Birds of Paradise contains her most mouthwatering writing ever, but it’s no light after-dinner treat. This is a full-course meal, a rich, complex and memorable story that will leave you lingering gratefully at her table.”

That’s some pretty rich hash you’re slinging around yourself, there, Ron — “phyllo dough”? “cream-filled work”? —  but we’ll forgive you. Anyone who’s read Abu-Jaber, with her rigorous yet congenial prose style and the deceptively ruthless way she unwraps the psychology of her characters, knows what it’s like to get carried away.

Bird of Paradise, switching from character to character as the story advances, works on multiple levels. It’s a city novel, examining the boomtown mania just before Hurricane Katrina shook things up in South Florida before going on to make history in New Orleans. It’s a family drama about the tensions and failures that can exist between loving and well-intentioned people when one child goes inexplicably astray.

And, building on the success of her previous novel, Origin, it’s a psychological mystery, too, well earning the secrets that gradual emerge.

As Charles writes, “With exquisite patience and psychological precision, Abu-Jaber unravels the mystery of the young woman’s decision to run from her home, destroy her parents’ happiness and remain constantly at risk.”

Bird of Paradise is that best kind of novel, one that finds a serious writer honing and developing her gift with each new work. It offers new readers an opportunity to catch up with this important American novelist just as she comes into the fullness of her powers.

Diana Abu-Jaber will read from Bird of Paradise at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, tonight at 8 p.m. Free. For more information, visit the bookstore website. For information on the author or the remaining stops on her book tour, which takes her willy-nilly all over this grand land in the next two months, visit her website.

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