Book Review: 'Birds of Paradise'

Diana Abu-Jaber's brilliant exploration of a once happy family in crisis. Photo: Scott Eason

WASHINGTON, August 13, 2011— Birds of Paradise, Diana Abu-Jaber’s brilliant fourth novel—and an Indie Books Pick—explores in detail the ongoing trials of the Muirs, a once happy Miami family that suddenly finds itself immersed in a seemingly insoluble emotional crisis.

Abu-Jaber’s sparkling resume already includes a pair of best-selling novels, Origin and Crescent. The latter was awarded both the 2004 PEN Center USA Award for Literary Fiction and the American Book Award. In addition, her first novel, Arabian Jazz, copped the 1994 Oregon Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. She’s also penned an award winning, recipe-spiced memoir, The Language of Baklava.

Birds of Paradise is likely to add further luster to her literary reputation.

As Leo Tolstoy famously stated in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is certainly true of Abu-Jaber’s Muir family, whose domestic tranquility is shattered by the apparently inexplicable disappearance of their daughter, Felice.

Author Diana Abu-Jaber.

Author Diana Abu-Jaber. (Credit: Scott Eason.)

As Birds of Paradise unfolds, we discover that, at the tender age of thirteen, Felice Muir suddenly ran away from home, choosing to dwell elsewhere, in places ranging from nondescript houses to the windswept beach itself. She models for money and skateboards for entertainment, living precariously on the fringe while her family reels from the shock and emotional turmoil of Felice’s action.

Five years after the fact, as Felice turns eighteen, we learn that her family is still suffering from their loss. Nonetheless, Avis, Brian, and Stanley, Felice’s parents and older brother, have somehow managed to achieve a semblance of normalcy in their individual and family lives. Like all troubled families, they’ve achieved at least a notion of equilibrium even as their central family crisis remains unresolved.

The Muirs’ chief way to work around the pain is to immerse themselves in in their careers. Avis is an accomplished pastry chef. Brian is a real estate lawyer. Stanley is the owner of an upscale organic food store. Yet in spite of their achievements in business, they find themselves alienated from one another, unable to bear their individual and collective sense of loss and guilt.

As the novel begins, Avis is once again attempting to see her elusive daughter, who sporadically contacts the family and sets up meetings at which she frequently fails to appear. In turn, Brian is trying to spare his wife and himself yet again from the pain caused by Felice’s continual rejection.

Meanwhile, Stanley—attempting to keep his business afloat while maintaining some kind of emotional equilibrium outside of his damaged family—feels betrayed by his family’s lack of support for his own endeavors.

'Birds of Paradise' front jacket.

‘Birds of Paradise’ front jacket.

Newly eighteen, Felice herself comes to the realization that facing her own guilty secret may permit her to move forward both physically and emotionally. Yet at present, she still seems like the novel’s eponymous bird of paradise, uniquely distinctive yet trapped in a cage of her own making. It is her own life journey that stands as the focal point of Abu-Jaber’s novel.

Anguish, regret, and angst aside, it takes Mother Nature to move the needle on the family dial. When a hurricane strikes at the heart of Miami, the Muirs, in spite of their ongoing family issues, suddenly find they must do their best to protect those around them, leading to some surprising connections.

With her evocative prose and accomplished style, Diana Abu-Jaber’s Birds of Paradise explores with wisdom and insight the emotional fallout of a shattering family crisis. Yet in this profoundly moving novel, she also manages to unearth the inherent, cathartic beauty of family and individual survival in this complex and perilous new century.


Birds of Paradise, by Diana Abu-Jaber. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. ISBN 9780393064612. 362 pages.

A frequent contributor to NPR, Diana Abu-Jaber teaches at Portland State University, dividing her time between Portland and Miami.  Visit her website here.

Read more book reviews in The Written Word at The Communities at the Washington Times.  Cecie O’Bryon England is the editor of Arts and Literature at Donne Tempo Magazine.


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Cecie O'Bryon England

Cecie O'Bryon England is a writer, reader, and artist who lives with her husband, the musician, John Henry England, and their two children, in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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