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Life Without a Recipe: A Memoir


Life Without a Recipe: A Memoir

Somehow I knew that Diana Abu-Jaber’s LIFE WITHOUT A RECIPE would not be mainly about the food, at least not in a literal cookbook manner. Ironically, the dishes that weave in and out of this gutsy memoir about mid-life transitions and family dilemmas always do have a recipe, classically defined as a set of directions (written or remembered) leading to an expected outcome.

But life, as Abu-Jaber discovers on a daily basis, is not like that. And, of course, she’s not alone. Despite our best efforts to mold the unique proportions of biology, psychology and culture we’re all born with into a meaningful whole, it can take any of us half a lifetime to find our true stride and rhythm.

Recipes, by comparison, are often much more reliable than the cooks who attempt them because their ingredients, when handled according to time-honored rules, have a satisfying habit of behaving the same way and repeatedly producing the results we expect. It’s no wonder that many of us, consciously or instinctively, turn to the creative comfort of the kitchen when hopes, dreams, relationships and self-worth become muddled and fragile.

"Celebrating a long apprenticeship and at the top of her game, Abu-Jaber’s latest memoir embraces the savory sweetness of a life in which 'all' is an ever-moving feast."

As Abu-Jaber learned from early childhood, growing up in an eccentric German-American-Jordanian household, cooking and baking with one’s own hands enlivens the senses and even calms the mind. When things get tough, the texture, aroma and taste of disparate ingredients, mindfully formed into something delicious, serve to nourish both body and spirit.

Throughout LIFE WITHOUT A RECIPE, the idea of food as a deeply rooted cultural legacy flows as a subtle but insistent catalyst in the family chemistry. It emerges at oddly poetic moments to effect change, challenge and surprise as Abu-Jaber wrestles with seemingly opposing hopes of being a successful writer, spouse and parent. And one couldn’t imagine family “ingredients” more disparate than the German baking heritage of her formidable grandmother Grace and the spiced exuberance of Middle Eastern cuisine from her father Bud’s homeland of Jordan.

Like the “good girl” she was taught to be, the adult author transitions through obligingly accepting family advice on vocation, marriage and parenthood (much of which didn’t quite work) to finally striking out independently to deal with the chaos of so-called normal life on her own terms.

After a few false and uncertain starts, some setbacks, retreats and even relationship disasters, she brought the creativity and focus of her writer’s mind to bear on the numerous surrounding distractions that life imposed between her and a completed book --- then another, and another. By the time she immersed herself in LIFE WITHOUT A RECIPE, Abu-Jaber was able to look back on her long but richly experienced journey from searching artist to award-winning author and retrace her steps with a humble, wry and often poignant turn of phrase.

Like any memoir, some “recipes” in this one leave a memorable and rich aftertaste. There’s the loving and honest portrait of Abu-Jaber’s late father, building from page to page with a nuance here, an aside there, a portrait flavored with the spice of a truly unique and passionate personality; her third-time-lucky life partner who willingly accompanies her throughout the emotional rough seas of becoming a middle-aged adoptive mother; and finally the long-sought infant Gracie, who grows into a remarkable little girl within the space of a few short chapters, whose mother now writes stories for her as well as teaching her how to cook.

It may seem as if Abu-Jaber has created a personal beyond-the-rules recipe for “having it all,” but LIFE WITHOUT A RECIPE doesn’t comfortably cadence onto such a bland and predictable note. It ends instead in an open-hearted, spontaneous and delightfully inconclusive way, a kind of victory for the “maybes” in life that we often waste time and energy fearing.

Celebrating a long apprenticeship and at the top of her game, Abu-Jaber’s latest memoir embraces the savory sweetness of a life in which “all” is an ever-moving feast.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on May 13, 2016

Life Without a Recipe: A Memoir
by Diana Abu-Jaber

  • Publication Date: April 4, 2017
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 271 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 039335377X
  • ISBN-13: 9780393353778