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The Last Days of Café Leila

Review

The Last Days of Café Leila

Noor and her family have a beautiful life in San Francisco. After a fairy-tale romance and courtship, Noor and Nelson married and are raising their teen daughter Lily, while they work in the medical field as a nurse and a surgeon. The couple is about to celebrate their anniversary with their customary picnic, accompanied by Noor’s lovingly prepared gourmet meal and champagne. Nelson’s flowers (two-dozen red roses) arrive at the hospital wing where Noor works. But his accompanying card sadly informs her that an unexpected surgery has been scheduled for their picnic time, and they’ll need to postpone. Noor decides that she’ll just deliver the meal to him after her shift ends; after all, he does still need to eat.

But when Noor arrives at the cardiology unit, she finds her husband sharing an intimate gesture with a nurse she doesn’t know well. Neither of them sees her, and in that moment, all of Noor’s beliefs and assumptions about her life and her marriage are shattered. She leaves the hospital and heads home, where she throws the food in the garbage and pours the champagne down the sink, as she sets her wedding ring on the counter.

To say that Noor’s life is dislocated is an understatement. All that she believed to be true about her husband, her marriage, and indeed, her life are revealed to be a collection of outright falsehoods, misunderstandings and imaginings. Nelson reveals that this was not his first foray into unfaithfulness and implies that he’s only following his own family’s pathways; after all, his father was irresistible to women. They calmly separate and move through divorce proceedings, as Noor reels from the shock that the life she believed she was living was a carefully constructed lie. Lily blames her mother, without knowing the entire truth, reacting with a child’s understanding and emotion to the utter dislocation of her family.

"Donia Bijan writes words that are quiet, rich and beautiful as she unfolds Noor’s story, and the reader is drawn completely into the family’s lives."

Half a world away, Noor’s father, Zod, still runs the family restaurant in Tehran. Founded by his parents, émigrés from Russia, Café Leila serves Persian cuisine for the discerning palate, with undertones of Russian and French cookery. The restaurant (originally constructed as part of a hotel that is now the family residence) has endured through Iran’s ups and downs, and even the Islamic Revolution. Now, most of Café Leila’s patrons are male, and its surrounding neighborhood looks as if it has taken a beating, but the restaurant carries on and delectable food (although ingredients are not as readily available) is still served.

All Noor wants is to escape to the security of her home and father in Tehran, though she hasn’t visited there since Zod sent her and her brother to safety and education in America. Constant letters have kept her close to Zod, but in the disintegration of her marriage, she longs to return to the solid love and stability offered by him. To her surprise (he’s rejected her proposed visits for years, to keep her safe), Zod writes and invites her to come. So she and Lily travel to the Persian land of her birth, which itself has undergone an earthquake of change since she left.

In this post-revolution Iran, women are clad in burqas and headscarves. Male and female life is strictly divided and regulated; for example, at the local swimming pool there are hours for men to swim and separate hours for women. This is an alien world for Lily, who’s furious at having been brought to Tehran, but Noor is just so happy to be home. Still, Café Leila doesn’t provide the safe and secure environment Noor was hoping for, and there are secrets from the past and actions in the present that she’ll encounter that will transform her again, as she’s entwined in the unknown history of her family and the new family she connects with in Iran.

Donia Bijan writes words that are quiet, rich and beautiful as she unfolds Noor’s story, and the reader is drawn completely into the family’s lives. Bijan’s real-life experiences as a Cordon Bleu chef are obvious in THE LAST DAYS OF CAFÉ LEILA, as the characters prepare the special cuisine that defines Café Leila. Yet beneath the lovely words and food described are the horrors of unrestrained force and injustice that were allowed to flourish during (and after) Iran’s revolution. The countless ways these horrors affected Noor’s family are revealed, yet the grace with which they not only survived them but also surmounted them creates a story that you’ll be unable to put down. You’ll be both entranced and surprised by this incredible novel, which introduces Persian life to readers who may not be familiar with it.

Reviewed by Melanie Reynolds on April 21, 2017

The Last Days of Café Leila
by Donia Bijan

  • Publication Date: April 18, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1616205857
  • ISBN-13: 9781616205850