“The Last Days of Cafe Leila,” by Donia Bijan, is a wonderfully refreshing and delicious novel about growing up in Iran before and after the revolution. It’s about families, heritage, the angst of being young and being old. It’s written with a great deal of love and a keen attention to detail; a delicate, dangerous balance of history and progress.
Noor was a teen when she was sent from her home in Iran to America by her father. As it broke his heart, Zod knew he must send both his son and daughter to safety far away. It was becoming too dangerous in Tehran in the 1970’s during the Islamic takeover of Iran. People were being killed needlessly while others just disappeared. No place to raise children.
We find Noor growing up alone in California and becoming a nurse. Then meeting a man who is perfect. And they marry and have one daughter, Lily. But when Noor discovers that her husband has been unfaithful she takes Lily to Tehran to visit her father, Lily’s grandfather. Lily is a very rebellious teenager herself by now and does NOT want to go. The country has changed so much in the 30 years since Noor has visited. But the cafe has remained the same. And her father is still the mainstay of the neighborhood, cooking for everyone and making an oasis for all. But what Noor soon finds out is that Zod is not well. And that changes the dynamic of the visit exponentially.
Bijan takes us back and forth in time handing us snippets of the past. We discover how Zod’s parents emigrated from Russian during that revolution. How they built the cafe and how Zod married his wife and made the cafe what it is today. We find out what really happened to Noor’s mother and why Zod really sent the two children away.
Everyone has heard of the atrocities in Iran. We all know it’s not a safe place to live, or even visit. I’ve seen movies about this. But this wonderful novel picks the bones of the Iranian people. People ,who through no fault of their own, were made to struggle through this war that still exists within the confines of Iran’s borders. Women being mistreated is an understatement. Not allowed to drive. Not allowed on the street without a male family member. People being banished or imprisoned for things we can not even imagine. But what I fell in love with in this story is the sheer beauty of the place and the people. Cafe Leila became an oasis filled with love and welcome in an area filled with fear and hate. It’s gorgeous lush gardens filled with trees and flowers and fruit and birdsong. The exotic aromas wafting from the walls as Zod and his family cook hearty Iranian meals. Oh, just the thought of gazing at the tall clear glass of tea with its amber color and its scent of mint. I can totally picture myself sitting back with a book in this garden of Eden. I was there in my mind. And I never wanted this novel to end! I will reread this one again and again.
The lyrical writing, the loving cast of characters, the laughter and nourishment of the body and soul that make this novel so unique and wonderful, is what I believe puts it at the top of the list for great new books!
There are plenty of twists in this novel. I loved that nothing is predictable. The end is controversial. And I loved it.
I found myself wanting more of this author. Lucky for us Donia Bijan has a memoir titled, “Maman’s Homesick Pie.” I am reading it now. Filled with recipes from her homeland and a story about her life. Donia attended the Cordon Bleu Cooking School and ran her own restaurant in Palo Alto, California for ten years.
This one of a kind novel pubs on April 18. So you have time to think about it and get pumped up. My review copy came from Algonquin in exchange for an honest review. I am NUTS about this one!!!