Everyone knows the rules. Never yield the right of way. Never stay in your own lane. Never slow down at a yellow light. If you missed your exit, simply put your car in reverse. You may change the direction of a one-way street. Blow your horn angrily and with abandon.
(a quote contained in an ARC that may not be in the finished book – though I hope it is)
Donia Bijan’s THE LAST DAYS OF CAFE LEILA is the immigrant novel you need to read.
A story of Family in it’s purest, most raw form, it is the story of the ‘American Dream’. It unwraps the almost mythological idea of the American Dream to compare what that means to the people who never come to America but know of it, the people who come to America and strive for it, and Americans who might take it for granted. That sounds like an awfully grand way to start a review but it is a fair way, as you’ll know when come to the end of the story.
One of the most compelling hooks to the story is that our main characters, Zod and his daughter Noor, are Iranian. Zod is the son of a Russian immigrant to Iran and Noor becomes an Iranian immigrant to America, and daughter, Lily, because a child of two incredibly different worlds. That, the immigrant’s story, is the basis for the story, for the characters and the choices they make throughout the novel.
Noor left Iran when she was eighteen, when Zod sent her and her older brother Mehrdad to America to go to school and make lives for themselves. Noor became a nurse, married a cardiac surgeon – an immigrant from Spain, and had her marriage fall part. When that happens, she goes home to Iran for the first time in eighteen years, taking her teenage daughter with her. The timing is painfully opportune because Zod is dying and needs to make peace with his life, just as much as Noor needs to be able to find herself in her roots.
Bijan tells the story of the family mostly with a present-day portrait of Zod, Noor, Lily, and the people surrounding them but there are flashes to the past, to when Noor and Mehrdad were children and Zod was in adoration of his wife, Pari, to when Noor was a young woman new to America, and even further back to when Zod was a student in Paris. The flashes to the past are important, because they tell the story of the Iranian Revolution, of how that shaped a family, and even of how the Russian Revolution shaped Zod and his descendants.
The action of the story, the height of intensity and character definition in it, is when Lily decides she’s been in Iran long enough and she wants to go home. But it is present-day Iran and it isn’t easy for anyone to move freely. Her plan, playing on the puppy love from a boy named Karim, comes off as almost contrived and cliched but, in the end, it shows just the right sense of teenager desperation to go home. And it serves a catalyst for Noor finally finding herself after a lifetime of defining herself by what she meant to someone else. Offered the chance to go home, to go back to being who Lily and Nelson defined her as, Noor stays in Iran to start being who she defines herself as, combining a world that will involve Lily, a badly injured Iranian girl called Ferry, and Cafe Leila – the place her grandparents began with recipes smuggled from Russia.
I am so honored to having been given an ARC of this book and I felt terrible that I hadn’t read and reviewed it soon, but it turns out the paperback goes on sale today (April 7, 2018) so it’s still timely. And it is a book I will buy a finished copy of, pester every reader I know to read, and read again. It is such a rich tale of immigrants, of East vs. West, of a woman’s fight to be her own person in worlds where women are supposedly equal and where they are definitely not, and of family. There is nothing I can critique about the story, and it made me want to learn everything about Iran. These are definite signs of a good book, one that anyone reading these needs to try as soon as possible!
Facts & Figures
- publication date: April 18. 2017 (Algonquin Books)
- buy it: here
- 320 pages
- genres/categories: fiction / Iran / immigrants / family / women / contemporary / history / San Francisco
- my reading dates: March 12, 2018 – March 23, 2018
- my rating: 5 stars