Hurricane Katrina is bearing down on Miami at the start of "Birds of Paradise", Diana Abu-Jaber's intimate and evocative fourth novel. Powerful as that infamous storm turns out to be, it's no match for the emotional vortex, years in the making, about to swamp the struggling Muir family.
It's the end of August in 2005 and Avis Muir, a master baker, is making cookies – or she seems to be. What's really going on as Avis follows the steps of a recipe so complex as to be sadistic, is a kind of martyrdom. The cookies are for Felice, the daughter who, at age 13, inexplicably ran away from home five years earlier. Mother and daughter are scheduled for one of their rare meetings at a Miami café that afternoon, if Felice decides to show.
Neither Avis nor her husband, Brian, has the slightest idea what caused Felice to abandon their home. So while Avis' baking began as a career, with Felice's vanishing it became an escape. As the years passed, Avis used her home-based bakery business to keep Brian and their son, Felice's older brother, Stanley, at bay. An artist – make that artiste – with impossible standards, Avis barricaded herself behind the stringent perfectionism required by her vision of herself as a pastry chef.
"Avis labored over her pastries: her ingredients base grew, combining worlds: preserved lemons from Morocco in a Provencal tart; Syrian olive oil in Neapolitan cantunccini; salt combed from English marshes and filaments of Kashmiri saffron secreted within a Swedish cream. By the time Avis was in college, her baking had evolved to a level of exquisite accomplishment: each pastry as unique as a snowflake, just as fleeting on the tongue: pellucid jams colored cobalt and lavender, biscuits light as eiderdown."
Hungry yet? Read the novel and you will be. Not just for the many fragrant and fragile pastries that float through its pages, but for the landscape of the story as well. Yes, there's a plot here, but what really sets "Birds of Paradise" apart is Abu-Jaber's genius for immersing the reader in a sense of place. From the manicured Eden of Coral Gables, to the amped-up narcissism of South Beach, to the rough, hot streets of Little Havana, you feel and smell and taste Miami.
There's the scent of "gardenia -- sweetness with a sharp, peppery center," the gaggle of street kids "hunched around a popping, greasy-looking joint," a "glissando of light" in a lime tree. Amid all the lush and luscious language, the plot plays out. And that's where the problems begin.
The story of Felice's leaving home and her family's subsequent implosion spins out in flashbacks. Chapters cycle through the points of view of the various characters – Avis, Brian, Felice and, almost as an afterthought, brother Stanley – with varying levels of success. Avis, whose name in Latin means, literally, 'bird', is flightless. Her grief has rendered her cold and self-involved. Brian's journey, as it takes him through the final days of Miami's high-flying real estate market, feels half-hearted.
It's in Felice's chapters that "Birds of Paradise" comes to full and sizzling life. She sleeps in the Green House, a mansion-turned-flop house near the beach, where she hangs with "the outdoors kids". Because, as we're repeatedly told, she's extraordinarily, ethereally, heart-stoppingly beautiful, she often works as a model. And she has a secret, a dreadful deed that has led to this self-imposed exile – "The Punishment," as she calls it.
The seed of the secret is planted in the opening pages of "Birds of Paradise," then slowly and somewhat unsurprisingly unfolds. Far more interesting is the odd pairing of Felice and Emerson, a big, sweet street boy who crosses her path. Homeless due to poor impulse control, Emerson is training to compete in the professional strongman circuit. Having a goal sets him apart from the rest of the "outdoors kids." But he's also falling for Felice, and her determined lack of ambition, along with the recklessness required by "The Punishment," threaten to bring him down.
When Hurricane Katrina finally hits, everything in Miami – and in the Muir clan – is rearranged. The past, if not swept away, is shuttled to such a remove that new motion appears possible. Whether you care what happens next to chilly Avis or bumbling Brian or poor, forgotten Stanley is up for grabs. Your eyes automatically follow Felice, not for her Liz Taylor beauty, but for what she knows about the slim divide between those who prosper and those who self-destruct.
Veronique de Turenne is an author and journalist.
"Birds of Paradise"
By Diana Abu-Jaber
W. W. Norton & Company, 362 pages, $25.95