Avis Muir is a brilliant pastry chef, Brian Muir a corporate real estate attorney. Their son, Stanley, is the proprietor of a trendy food market. Their beautiful daughter, Felice, is missing. A runaway at 13, Felice has spent five years modeling tattoos, skateboarding, clubbing, and sleeping in a squat house or on the beach. She's about to turn 18. Soon all of the Muirs will be forced to confront their anguish, loss, and sense of betrayal. And Felice must reckon with the guilty secret that drove her away, then face her fear of losing her family and her sense of self forever.
Set against the vibrant backdrop of contemporary Miami, Birds of Paradise is filled with piercing insights into the politics of food and sugar, teen culture, and of the ebb and flow of marriage. The writing is sumptuous, the story moving, and the descriptions of food (one of Abu-Jaber's specialties) are mouth-watering.
I am giving this book a "4" overall, because even with its faults, bottom line I thought the story (a "3") was only about 70% well-conceived but the writing was polished, lyrical and nuanced, and for the most part I enjoyed reading this. I am usually not one to emphasize story over writing style, but the elegant, polished narrations of mood, weather, tropical urban ambiance, even the author's delicate, precise, baroque, completely mouth-watering descriptions of food and pastry could not overcome some serious flaws in the story.
Much of the reason I kept reading in the slow-going first part of this book was because I wanted to know why the 13-yr-old left her privileged life in suburban Miami to become a street kid, or one of the "beach kids". I recognized this as a narrative technique which in a less talented hand would seem cheap. When the reveal finally came, it did not ring true, and seemed excessive for a 13-year-old, especially someone from an advantaged background. There were also digressions in other story arcs, such as the father's business life as a real-estate attorney which became too byzantine and not compelling nor intriguing enough to sustain my interest, and then the son's life with his girlfriend, who seemed insipid on the one hand, yet inappropriately aggressive (way beyond "assertive") on the other. The resolution of the primary plot lines at the end was only partial and left me wondering "Seriously??".
On the other hand, the characterization of Avis (wife/mother/professional baker) was completely fleshed out and I think the reader could connect with the turbulent emotions regarding her marriage, her missing daughter, as well as with her work ethic and professionalism.
That said, the book is highly listenable, especially with the narrator's flexible style. She sounded neutral and evenly paced (never too much drama) when needed, yet masterful in rendering local dialect and regional accents, creating the perfect "melting pot" ambience of a borderline area such as Miami, with its residents from such divergent backgrounds. An added plus is that both writer and narrator have an excellent feel for dialogue.There was one line (not spoiling) that I would like to print and frame on my wall.
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If you've read the author's novel, Crescent, you won't be disappointed; the atmosphere and food descriptions are as decadent and surrounding as before. It didn't suck me in right away but I was glad I stuck with it, the story gathers momentum, Avis, Brian, Felice, and Stanley's POVs twining together tighter and tighter, like hurricanes do. There are some difficult moments, of course, but they're done with careful treatment. I sped up the narration a few times, the narration getting a little too languorous, like the Miami heat was weighing down the pacing. Probably not for listening to with younger kids, there's some coarse language appropriate to the situations.