Birds of Paradise
by Diana Abu-Jaber
Reviewed by Christine Selk
When you're familiar with someone's work, it can be difficult to separate it from what has come before, to let it stand -- or stumble -- on its own merit. But this challenge, in the end, is what makes Birds of Paradise so remarkable. Because while Portland writer Diana Abu-Jaber has always impressed us with her pointed humor and cultural insights, her new novel is just that: entirely new. With Birds of Paradise, Abu-Jaber has made an amazing, gigantic leap into rare air, that hazy stratosphere we jokingly call The Big Time. Her novel is that worthy, and that beautiful.
Birds of Paradise centers on Avis and Brian Muir, a couple tortured by the disappearance of their beautiful daughter, Felice, who ran away at 13. As the story begins, Felice is about to turn 18, having spent five years clubbing, skateboarding and modeling for Miami tattoo parlors. Felice's absence has created a chasm between Avis, a pastry chef who buries her sorrows in complicated recipes, and Brian, a workaholic lawyer who is considering an affair with a young associate. Falling into this cleft is Stanley, Felice's older brother, a successful entrepreneur haunted by his sister's departure.
While a child gone AWOL certainly offers up much dramatic grist, Abu-Jaber isn't content to simply portray the causes and effects of family upheaval. She looks for the ripples, the in-betweens, examining the spins and dips of the mother-daughter dance ("Could it be that she'd always been a little afraid of her own daughter? That she simply didn't know how to fight her?"); the microscopic oversights that, taken together, wither a marriage; and the small acts of adolescent cruelty that can decimate. (Mothers of teenage daughters, be warned: This can, at times, be a tough read.)
And while the plot is strong on its own, Abu-Jaber deftly weaves in a number of threads that strengthen the novel as a whole. Avis' friendship with her next-door neighbor, for example, takes on added significance when we learn of the horrible bond the two women share. And the gradual unspooling of Felice's story, revealing why she left home, takes place as Hurricane Katrina gathers strength over the Atlantic, two perfect storms colliding.
While the characters are believably yet richly drawn, the breakout star of Birds of Paradise is Miami. The city is a character in its own right, a multilayered metropolis whose extreme weather, flora and economic dichotomies take on an almost foreign quality in Abu-Jaber's hands. One character says of the city: "This isn't even like America!" And no, you think, it's not. But it is a sliver of something like paradise.