Title: Birds of Paradise
Author: Diana Abu-Jaber
Release Date: September 6, 2011
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5
When she was just thirteen years old, Felice Muir ran away from home, stifled by her comfortable life and a secret she could not face. Four years later, her mother, Avis, still hopes her daughter will come home. Her father, Brian, on the other hand, has given up on Felice, and has thrown himself into his work to distract himself. As Avis, Brian, and Felice’s brother Stephen slowly fall apart, they sow the seeds that could bring this broken family back together again.
Birds of Paradise is a portrait of a family in decline. Avis and Brian no longer communicate; each is in their own world of work, with willful walls and boundaries placed between them. Each must deal with their own feelings of inadequacy as parents as they continue to grapple with Felice’s disappearance, with her decision to remove herself from them. Avis suffers from a mother’s guilt and is overwhelmed with love for Felice, but at the same time she is continually devastated by her daughter making appointments to see her and failing to show up. Her grief permeates the entire novel; it makes the edges sharp and the nerves of the book raw. It brings everything, every event, each encounter, into clearer focus, yet that clarity can be painful.
Diana Abu-Jaber beautifully renders emotions in Birds of Paradise. Her gorgeous prose left this reader at a loss for words. She takes such difficult and hurtful situations and somehow makes them gentler and easier with her lush words. She writes so honestly and gracefully that it makes the reader want to weep with the beauty of what she portrays. My clumsy words cannot do justice to what the author has accomplished through her writing.
Felice herself could easily have been painted as a villain, a destructive force that has unleashed her fury on her family and then left them to cope with the ruins of what she left behind. But instead, Felice is sympathetic and captures the reader’s heart. As much as reader’s will completely understand Avis’s emotional despair, so too can the reader see Felice’s hurt. It’s clear from the beginning of the book that something drove Felice away from home, of which the reader (and likely the rest of the Muir family) are unaware. While this does present a source of curiosity for the reader, by the end, the reason doesn’t matter. All that is important is the journey, what Felice has learned, and where she will go.
It can be difficult at times to witness the Muir family’s struggles and their imminent collapse, but there is beauty and wonder in rebuilding. Sometimes it takes being forced to the edge to face reality, to see how you’ve been living. That’s true for every character in this book, from Felice to Stephen to Avis and Brian. Birds of Paradise is an incredibly well-crafted novel, and the lush prose and realistic characters only add to the wonderful experience of reading it.