Diana Abu-Jaber's novel Birds of Paradise is a gut-wrenching family drama set against the backdrop of the tropical suburbs that surround Miami.
The Muir family is living a seemingly picture-perfect middle-class life. They have a lovely home, great jobs and beautiful children. Look closer and they're a mess.. Each member of the family lives in isolation. They hold in their pain and they fear expressing both their problems and their desires.
The parents, Avis and Brian have long stopped communicating and their marriage is on the brink of collapse. Their adult son, Stanley, has quit college to pursue his dream of owning a community grocery store. He worries that his parents disapprove of choices. The youngest child, Felice, ran away from home in high school and has been living on the streets for years. All four people want to repair their wounds, but a sense of pride and the struggle to communicate keeps forcing them to stay apart, only compounding the situation.
The story is told through all four characters, alternating the focus with each chapter. I found Felice's story to be by far the most compelling. It was kind of like an episode of Dateline with all of the details of the teenagers living on the streets. It was horrible to read, yet I kept wanting more. I felt like the author must have had experience or was very well researched, because the details just rang true. At times, I forgot that I was reading fiction.
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. Abu-Jaber has a beautiful, lyrical quality to her writing and she really made the city of Miami come alive through her descriptions. In the story, Avis has a baking business and I loved Abu-Jabers flowing paragraphs describing the amazing pastries and cakes. Don't read this story on an empty stomach or while dieting!
My only fault is maybe it tried to accomplish too much. There was a lot going on with all of the characters and it overreached. I was unevenly interested in the various story lines and it led to an uneven pacing. I wish that Felice had been the primary focus of the story, as there was plenty of information with her character to warrant an entire novel. The twist as to why she ran away from home is loaded and could have been explored more deeply. It's a shock.
I look forward to reading more stories by Abu-Jaber. She is a talented storyteller and has a wonderful writer's voice.