Birds of Paradise

  • By Diana Abu-Jaber
  • W.W. Norton
  • 362 pp.

In this novel a fractured family struggles with loss, personal misery, and the many secrets its members harbor.

Diana Abu-Jaber’s latest novel pivots around a missing teenager whose long absence is a continuing grief for her family. After multiple attempts at running away, Felice Muir finally succeeds when she is thirteen. The novel opens five years later. Although Felice’s parents know she lives near them in Miami, they have had only the barest contact with her over this extended period. In Birds of Paradise, without death’s certainty, the family is in perpetual anguish over possible but ultimately failed connections with Felice.

Abu-Jaber names her characters to underscore irony. Felice, which loosely translates to “happy,” is the Muirs’ angry, vagrant daughter. Her mother is named “Avis,” meaning “bird” in Latin.  In contrast to a bird, Avis is stationery — stuck in a morass of self-recrimination and anxiety after her daughter flees the family home. Moreover, Avis is driven to distraction by a pet bird next door, owned by a Haitian immigrant, Solange (variously translated as “solemn,” “peaceful” or “angel”). The title, Birds of Paradise, refers not only to the tropical flower of the same name, but also to the bird symbolism throughout, and the fact that, far from paradise, the Muirs inhabit a private hell. Perhaps with the family’s last name we are meant to conjure John Muir — suggesting the environmental peace and tranquility absent from these pages.

Avis runs an elite pastry business from her home. Her husband, Brian, works as an attorney at a real estate firm of somewhat questionable ethics that aggressively buys land to develop condominiums in Miami’s sprawling suburbs. Although Avis hoped that Felice would inherit her love of baking, it is Stanley, the Muirs’ older child, who embraces food. Stanley serves as the novel’s moral compass. He drops out of college to open a socially conscious market in a low-income neighborhood that not only offers high quality organic meats and produce, but employment for the locals, as well.

[Read this page to see more of cozy condos.]

As Felice’s 18th birthday approaches, both she and her parents are keenly aware that Felice is about to become an “adult.” But what does “adult” mean in this context? If adult means old enough to fend for oneself, Felice has been an adult for some time. The reader is repeatedly told (to the point of overkill) of Felice’s exquisite beauty. Living on the streets, Felice has learned to use her beauty to make money modeling. However, what she earns is either stolen from her, or squandered on contraband. Felice’s parents have no idea how she supports herself.

As the novel opens, Avis has set up one of her rare meetings with Felice to honor her 18th birthday. She plans to give her daughter money to mark the occasion. Even though it is no surprise, Avis is crushed when Felice fails to materialize.

Felice’s absence has caused such a family rupture that Avis has lost the ability to communicate with her husband. Avis can focus on nothing but her lost daughter. Although Brian knows Felice won’t show for the birthday meeting, Brian and Avis can’t discuss it. Brian fails to offer Avis comfort, and Avis cannot seek it. Brian’s copes by shutting down to avoid reopening the wound from his daughter’s departure. In fact, Felice is never far from either of her parents’ thoughts.

In a format that becomes too predictable, Avis, Felice, and Brian are given successive chapters. We learn something about them in the present tense, while the remainder of each chapter fills in their back story. There is some tension created over Brian’s flirtation with a young co-worker, and his decision to invest all his savings in an extremely risky real estate deal. Further tension is created as we learn more about Felice’s precarious existence in the drug and alcohol saturated world of Miami’s street youth. Gradually, we come to understand that Felice carries a dreadful secret that triggered her departure, although her parents never suspect what it is. Instead, we are privy to Avis’ obsessive, agonized consideration of what she could have done differently as a mother. Eventually, Avis confides in her neighbor Solange, overcoming her desire to call in the authorities to silence Solange’s bird.

In its exploration of a shattered family, Birds of Paradise resonates with Carol Shields’ novel, Unless, and Anne Roiphe’s Loving Kindness. Each of these books delves into a mother’s heartbreaking and irresolvable split from her absent daughter. In Unless, like Birds of Paradise, the divide is over a traumatic event in the daughter’s life. In Loving Kindness, it is religious differences that open the chasm.

This is a difficult subject and Abu-Jaber handles it with fluidity. She uses Avis’ painstaking work over her pastries as a foil for the emotional chaos that threatens to drown her. Authors such as Laura Esquival in Like Water for Chocolate and the mystery writer Diane Mott Davidson may more deftly use food as a fiction motif, but the descriptions of Avis’ baking are fresh and intriguing.

The book’s pace accelerates through Felice’s developing relationship with Emerson, a young man who also finds himself cut loose on Miami’s streets, and through the escalating violence to which Felice and her compatriots subject themselves. Felice’s father, Brian, becomes increasingly reckless himself, leading him into a violent situation, as well. Birds of Paradise uncovers Miami’s seamy underside, a distant cry from the glitzy resort that lures thousands of tourists each year. Abu-Jaber’s beach is never a warm and relaxing destination for weary travelers. At best it is a haven for runaway youth, at worst it is a zone of threats and danger.

Not until the conclusion is Stanley given his own chapter, which adds heft to his role in the family drama. We visit with him at his market as he and his girlfriend board up the building in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina. Periodic weather reports predicting a major hurricane add to the book’s sense of menace.

Birds of Paradise might have been more satisfying if Abu-Jaber had tied up all the loose ends. Instead, we learn that Solange harbors secrets, too, but the author never resolves Solange’s disappearance from the neighborhood. There are also unanswered questions about the Muir family, and about Felice’s and Brian’s encounters with violence. These may be intentional allusions to the ambiguity of human relationships. Even the most stable families are messy once you get inside.

Martha Toll is Executive Director of the Butler Family Fund, a nationwide philanthropy focused on ending homelessness and the death penalty. She has been featured as a book commentator on NPR and has just received representation for her debut novel.

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