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Bookmarks Issue: 
55-Nov-Dec-2011
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A-Birds of ParadiseDiana Abu-Jaber, an English professor at Portland State University, is the author of three novels and a memoir. Her debut novel, Arabian Jazz (1993), was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and Crescent (2003) won an American Book Award.

The Story: A hurricane gathers off the shore of Miami in the summer of 2005, and a fractured family hovers on the brink of destruction. Five years before, stunningly beautiful 13-year-old Felice Muir ran away from her Coral Gables home. Now, on the eve of her 18th birthday, parents Avis and Brian have reached a breaking point. Avis can no longer bury herself in the precision of her work as a pastry chef, and Brian, a corporate real estate attorney, seems unable to stop intentionally putting himself in danger. Their neglected older son Stanley has finally struck out on his own. All of them are struggling to come to terms with their loss.
Norton. 362 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780393064612

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"She writes with a precise, almost poetic distillation of feeling, heightened in contrast to the ripe, exuberant landscape and the unsettled feelings of a family in limbo. ... Birds of Paradise is a beautifully written and creatively imagined meditation on control and letting go and on the risks of trusting someone." Amy Driscoll

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"While the characters are believably yet richly drawn, the breakout star of Birds of Paradise is Miami. The city is a character in its own right, a multilayered metropolis whose extreme weather, flora and economic dichotomies take on an almost foreign quality in Abu-Jaber's hands." Christine Selk

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Abu-Jaber is able to achingly express each family member's regrets, hopes and fears. ... [She] conjures especially well the tropical essence of Miami." Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"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. ... 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

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Felice hijacks the novel from the rest of her family. Her chapters are the most riveting, spiky with details and edged with almost unbelievable danger. In contrast, the other characters feel stilted, forced into stale life." Cristina Garcia

Critical Summary

In alternating chapters, each of the Muirs has the opportunity to describe the aftermath of Felice's disappearance and the lingering regrets, hopes, and fears with which they continue to struggle. While Felice unquestionably steals the narrative with her vitality and dark wit, only the New York Times Book Review thought that the other characters are rather inert by comparison. All agreed, however, that the city of Miami comes vibrantly to life, "from trickling beads of sweat in humid night air and the lingering scent of café con leche to the sleek towers of downtown and techno thudding of South Beach" (Miami Herald). Abu-Jaber's lyrical language, complex characters, and rich, multilayered story line combine to create a heartbreakingly astute psychological snapshot of a ruptured family.