Creating the perfect pastry is a kind of art, demanding as it does a balance of skill, discipline and heart. • Avis Muir explains it on the first page of Diana Abu-Jaber's novel Birds of Paradise: "A cookie, Avis told her children, is a soul. She held up the wafer, its edges shimmering with ruby-dark sugar. 'You think it looks like a tiny thing, right? Just a little nothing. But then you take a bite.' "
Avis is a baker by profession, the kind of perfectionist who can create such rarefied treats, as ineffably delicious as they are beautiful. But creating a perfect family, she finds, has a much greater degree of difficulty.
As Birds of Paradise opens in 2005, the Muir family might seem to an outside glance as warm and lovely as one of Avis' gateaus St. Honoré. She has a thriving business baking for Miami's best families and restaurants; her husband, Brian, is the head attorney for one of the city's most successful development companies, riding the crest of the housing boom. They live in a handsome house in Coral Gables. (So what if it's not on the best street — even the Gables, a real estate agent tells Avis, has its "ghetto . . . four bedrooms instead of eight, balconies but no tennis courts, no servants' quarters. That sort of thing.") Their son, Stan, though only in his mid 20s, is an entrepreneur off to a good start, running a Whole Foods-style grocery in Homestead.
But the Muir family has an aching hollow at its center. Five years before, Avis and Brian's daughter, Felice, ran away from home. The day she left for good, after a few false starts, she was 13.
It's any parent's nightmare but a particularly cruel irony for Avis, who was raised in "benign neglect" by an unmarried scholar so little interested in her child she couldn't even pinpoint who Avis' father was. She became a baker, we learn, because she grew up in a house where there was often nothing for a child to eat. Creating a haven of warmth for her own children — especially her daughter — is her highest goal.
No one knows why Felice left. She was adored and indulged by her parents and brother, popular with her peers and heart-stoppingly beautiful. As a youngster she's annoyed when people tell her she looks just like Elizabeth Taylor: "she pictured that squat, henlike woman with her wig and jewels, holding hands with Michael Jackson." Then someone shows her a photo of the young Taylor, and she realizes what a compliment the comparison is.
Felice's beauty is a double-edged sword, as beauty always is. It has gotten her many things she wants with little or no effort — "she'd always thought of beauty as a kind of passivity" — but it also puts her in danger, especially out on the street.
Felice has not run far, just across the MacArthur Causeway to Miami Beach, where she ekes out a living as a model, "party filler" and mooch, as well as occasional darker jobs. But she has avoided the full-tilt fall into drugs and prostitution that many other street kids suffer, and she has maintained her determination not to go home, despite her parents' desperate efforts to find her. Since she left, she has seen her mother a handful of times, her father and brother not at all.
Birds of Paradise begins with Felice's imminent 18th birthday. She has contacted her mother and consented to meet at a cafe, and Avis has spent three days creating an intricate batch of gingembre en cristal, Felice's favorite cookie — even though experience suggests her daughter might not even show up.
Felice's adamant resistance to being cared for by anyone else — its motivation a mystery that Abu-Jaber only slowly, and surprisingly, reveals — has triggered similar responses in her family. Avis and Brian have buried themselves in their jobs; she is dreaming of living alone, in a little cottage that is all kitchen, while he is flirting with a pretty young striver at work. Stanley, trying to get his business off the ground, literally lives over the store and has time for little else. The three might as well be strangers to each other, as Felice already is.
Abu-Jaber alternates the novel's chapters among the family members, deftly capturing their different voices and perceptions. Although they seem to grow further apart as the novel develops, each of them forms a supportive bond with someone outside the family.
Avis, stepping into a neighbor's yard to complain about the shrieking of a caged exotic bird, meets an even stranger captive with whom she shares a terrible bond. Brian finds that someone he thinks has betrayed him is a truer friend than he thought, Stan discovers he has a family of his own in the making, and Felice meets a boy who might be her knight in shining armor — or just crazy.
Abu-Jaber writes with wit and insight about her range of characters, and her sharp observation of setting makes Miami another character in the novel, from the sleek downtown high rises to the glimmering thump of the SoBe clubs, from the lush quiet of the Gables to the multilingual street life of less opulent neighborhoods. And, this being South Florida, there's a hurricane.
Her prose is often lyrical, rising into striking images like the spun sugar on Avis' creations. But Birds of Paradise has satisfying substance, too, for anyone hungry to read about the many ways that modern families lose and love.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.