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The Last Days of Café Leila: A Novel…

The Last Days of Café Leila: A Novel

by Donia Bijan

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This novel is the story of 3 generations of the Yadegar family in post-revolutionary Iran.

Zod Yadegar has written his daughter Noor in California asking that she return home to Tehran where he runs the family business Cafe Leila. She agrees to come and brings along her angry teenage daughter Lily. Noor, a nurse, notices that Zod appears to be ill but is not aware how sick he is. She soon learns that he has terminal cancer and decides to stay longer than the week she originally planned to stay. This, of course, upsets Lily who did not want to travel to Iran anyway. While Noor is there, she becomes reacquainted with longtime Cafe Leila employees Naneh Goli, Soli, and Ala who have always been considered family to the Yadegars.

The family saga alternates between Noor's family problems, Zod's marriage and family life with Noor's mother Parvaneh, and Zod's parents Yanik and Nina who emigrated from Russia to Iran and opened Cafe Leila. Yanik and Nina created a tight family bond that begins to fall apart when Zod forces his children to leave Iran when they become college age because Iran was too dangerous to live in. However, when Zod's kids return 30 years later the family bond appears to be intact.

The setting of the restaurant is prominent. All of life's problems seem to be solved by working hard to create an inviting place for their customers. While Iran has changed over the years, Cafe Leila has remained the same and offers its customers a respite from a quickly changing society.

I loved this novel. The characters were lovable and I enjoyed reading about the history of this family through each generation's stories. The descriptions of the food served at the restaurant were mouth watering and also historic to the family. Yanik had come to Iran with his mother's recipes and they were used as the restaurant's menu. Every aspect of this wonderful book is family related.

Highly recommended. ( )
  Violette62 | Apr 23, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Heartwarming narrative about three generations of an Iranian family, which since the 1930s has opened and run Café Leila, which has become a landmark on that side of Tehran. A story set in present-day is that of Noor, whose father has sent her to America as a teenager with her brother when the Revolution and subsequent ultra-Islamism exploded in the country. There are flashbacks of family history. Noor is now separated from her husband and at the behest of her father, Zod, returns with a sullen, sulky adolescent daughter, Lily, to visit her father. He now runs the café with the help of relatives, also staff that have been there from the beginning. He is very ill with cancer and wants to see her before he dies. We see life in post-Revolution Iran. An act of horrific violence brings something good from it for Lily. This spreads to the whole family. After Zod's death, the day comes when Noor and Lily are to return to the States.... The ending disappointed, but I do see the logic.

Such mouth-watering descriptions of Persian cuisine fascinated me. I wish, like "Like Water for Chocolate", to which although set in a different time and place, I compared this story, the author had included some of the simpler Persian recipes at the back. Not only a gastronome's delight, any local color of Iran and Iranian family life was inspired.

Highly recommended. ( )
  janerawoof | Apr 21, 2017 |
I enjoy books which illuminate other cultures so I really looked forward to reading this book. Though it does indeed provide details about Iranian culture, it does so in a narrative that I can only describe as awkward and unsophisticated.

Noor, recently divorced, returns to Iran after a 30-year absence to visit her aging father Zod. Noor is accompanied by her recalcitrant teenaged daughter Lily. In Tehran, Zod continues to run a restaurant, Café Leila, which is a neighbourhood gathering place started years earlier by his parents. Noor is returning home but Lily has difficulty adjusting to life in Iran.

There are numerous flashbacks. The reader learns about the emigration of Zod’s parents from Russia; Iran’s studies in Paris and his marriage to Pari; Pari’s death; Noor’s life in California and her marriage and divorce. There are even flashbacks describing the lives of the employees at the café.

The story is narrated from multiple perspectives: Zod, Pari, Noor, Lily, Lily’s father, Noor’s brother, Zod’s estranged brother, Zod’s sister-in-law, the café’s errand boy, etc. The author obviously wanted to create well-rounded characters, but the effect is a lack of focus.

The impression is that the author didn’t know whom to focus on so she put a spotlight on everyone. For example, it is not necessary to go on and on about Karim’s becoming besotted with Lily. We are told that he can’t stop staring at her and that he can’t concentrate at school and that he keeps repeating her name to himself and that he gets her a kitten and that he will do anything for her and . . . Karim is a minor character and there seems little purpose to being repeatedly told that he is in love with Lily. For all the references to him, Karim remains a flat character.

Zod is a major character but he is not believable. He is just too good to be true. He cares about everyone, is wise, is unfailingly optimistic, and is loved by everyone. He is given the homage “never seen but for martyrs and mullahs”?! His behaviour, however, is inconsistent. He tells his daughter to visit him and to bring Lily with her: “Pack a bag for you and Lily and come visit your old father” but then he scolds her: “You brought Lily into danger and discomfort . . .” He even asks, “What lesson did Noor aim to teach by bringing her here?”

There is much telling and little showing in the book. Noor is supposed to be a dynamic character who grows, but we are only told that she grows. We are given a thorough description of her flaws: “Blinded by her troubles, unable to raise her head, to exert herself, clinging to the exaggerated memories of her youth. When had this girl, who defied them in childhood, who never got her way fast enough, grown timid and undemanding, so frustratingly passive in the face of humiliation? Why did she think herself so undeserving of love, merely enduring life like a pebble in her shoe and side stepping people’s shortcomings, talking as though she had caused Nelson’s infidelity – a watchfulness grown inward, doubtful and wary of her own child even.” Her parenting is thoroughly criticized: “For too long Noor had auditioned for motherhood, fun mom one day to authoritarian the next, careening from affectionate to cool, indulgent to critical, hands-off to hovering, and if Nelson was the arbiter, the easygoing dad, there to keep the peace and make their meals festive, it only heightened the pitch of her pendulum. It was exhausting being Noor, but she meant well. She always had meant well.”

Then we are told that Noor’s “reaching out to Nelson, recognizing she couldn’t sway Lily without him, was a big step for her” and “Noor eventually came to learn that we see what we want to see.” We don’t see her learning these lessons; we are told she has these insights. Noor’s only observation about her own behaviour is that she has taught her daughter to be afraid: “’all I’ve ever done is show you how to be afraid.’” Of course Lily’s behaviour with Karim does not seem like that of someone who is afraid. Her father, in fact, loves her because “she could not be depended upon to comply with form. Her bold, brutal honesty was what he admired.” And Noor’s decision at the end suggests she is still auditioning for motherhood so there is little growth in her character.

One of the major techniques of showing is dialogue. This novel has little dialogue and certainly no extended conversations that would reveal character. The dialogue that is included seems to serve little purpose. For instance, a discussion about the ingredients in piroshkies is hardly revealing; Noor asks her father, “’Didn’t you used to put cream in the spinach filling?’” and Zod answers, “’Mm. And sometimes hard-boiled eggs.’”

There are intrusive statements and comments throughout. In case the reader wouldn’t realize it, he/she is told “Neither Lily nor Karim could be expected to understand a world where such things were possible, that an innocent girl would be burned alive for refusing a ludicrous marriage proposal.” The narrator even addresses the reader: “Maybe if you’ve lived as long as he had, you knew all too well that looking for blame was futile, that you need not go back and ask for explanations.” And the tone can be downright preachy: “Because if our parents didn’t exalt us, we spend our adult lives blaming them – for not doing this, and not doing that, not being ‘supportive,’ not making an appearance at our first recital, being overprotective or aloof, damaging our self-esteem. Yet at our best or worst, who sees everything? Who knows us best? Who waits and waits to see what we yet may be? Then one day they’re gone and it’s just you, and there’s nothing left to squeeze, no one to blame for the dismay over the course your life has taken.”

As I mentioned at the beginning, I love books that highlight other cultures. The problem with this book is that it sounds like an essay at times: “The cuisine of Northern Iran, overlooked and underrated, is unlike most Persian food in that it’s as unfussy and lighthearted as the people from that region.” And “It’s customary in Iran for a family member to wash the body of the deceased; there are no undertakers and no viewings, burial is swift.” We are told that Noor’s sister-in-law “was incapable of tarof (a custom of self-deference exclusive to Iranians)” and then the reader is given several examples of her lack of decorum. Since this sister-in-law never appears in the novel, is the purpose of this paragraph just to discuss an Iranian custom? And the descriptions of food go on and on: “He filled the pockets not just with beef and onions, but peach jam, saffron rice pudding, smoked sturgeon, potatoes and dill, cabbage and caraway apples, duck confit and chopped orange peel . . .”

The author has included some Farsi to add local colour but, again, the translations are awkwardly inserted in parentheses immediately afterwards: “’Agha (Mr.) Nejad, how are you feeling?’” A reader shouldn’t have to be told that tarof means self-deference when the subsequent sentence (“She spoke frankly and without decorum”) indicates its meaning. And would a person actually use a conjunction, and only a conjunction, in another language: “’It’s been a good adventure for her, and you, pero
(but) –‘” When Lily asks Karim, who speaks little or no English, “’How do you say brother?’” he understands her question and immediately replies, “’Baradar’”?

I fear I have been rather harsh in my review, but I honestly find little to recommend this book. I read an eARC so perhaps changes will be made.

Note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Please check out my reader's blog (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
  Schatje | Apr 18, 2017 |
4.5 stars

WOW is the best word I can use to describe The Last Days of Café Leila. I absolutely loved the book all the way up until the end. The ending made me very sad and while I am not sure how it could have ended differently, I wish it had. I cannot say anymore without spoiling it so I will leave it at that. The rest of the book is absolutely perfect.

My emotions ran the full gamut while reading this book: intense joy, intense sadness, horror, embarrassment, disbelief, and fascination. When I began reading, I quickly realized how little I knew about Iran, both present day and the 20th century events that led up to present day. My brief knowledge covered the Iran hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq conflicts, and the Iran revolution in 1979. While I knew Iran was ruled by a conservative Islamic government, I had no idea how conservative and restrictive the government actually is. Bijan effectively conveys what life is like for those still living there (many have sent their children abroad and often emigrated themselves) and the great loss of freedom and culture that is experienced for those remaining. I truly cannot imagine living under those conditions especially as a woman but even as a man with music, dancing, and access to other cultures banned by the Islamic Republic. Moreover, Bijan portrays the sadness felt by those who lived in Iran prior to the revolution and truly mourn how much was lost when the Islamic Republic came into power. Living in the United States, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that many do not live with the freedoms we take for granted. I felt this sentiment time and time again while I was reading this book.

Donia Bijan’s writing is magical and beautifully lyrical. I was transported to Tehran and particularly Café Leila, frequently feeling like I could visualize the café and its environs along with the Persian meals and foliage. I loved learning about Persian food and customs and the manner in which residents did their best to adhere to and keep alive traditions that have been banned for so many years. Bijan’s characters are lovingly crafted. Zod is one of the greatest characters I have encountered in fiction in a long while. He will stay with me for quite a long time and hopefully I absorbed some of his parenting style.

I am so thankful that I read this book and wish it could be required reading for everyone at this time in the United States when tolerance of others and their cultures is sometimes sadly lacking. Knowledge leads to understanding and empathy (which is exactly why these conservative regimes ban so many things). I cannot wait to read Donia Bijan’s next novel and am so glad I read this one. Make sure you have tissues nearby – certain sections are nothing short of heartbreaking. Thanks to Algonquin and NetGalley for the chance to read this ARC in exchange for an honest review. ( )
  cburnett5 | Apr 9, 2017 |
The Last Days of Café Leila is one of those stories that pluck at your heart strings and captivate your senses. Donia Bijan writes about a loving family that finds its way to love from generation to generation, through the tragedies of revolution and the reluctant diaspora of emigration. The focus of the story is Noor who grew up at Café Leila in Tehran but who was sent to America by her father, Zod, when she graduated high school. Zod sent both his children, hoping to protect them from the excesses of the Iranian theocracy.

Noor has been married twenty years when she discovers her husband, Nelson, has been cheating on her. She leaves him. Zod invites her to come back to Tehran for a few weeks hoping to heal her heart. She takes her reluctant and resentful daughter Lily with her.

Café Leila is a magical place. Founded by Zod’s Russian immigrant parents Yanik and Nina back in the 1930s, it was a center of hospitality and celebration. The story carries us through their early years, the tragic death of their oldest son that brought Zod back to Tehran from his University studies in Paris to marry Pari, his brother’s fiancée, a happy marriage that perhaps made Noor overly-optimistic about her own.

This family is open-hearted and full of life and they draw people in, they take people in, creating an extended family of friends, of employees who are more like family, and even strangers who need shelter. A lot happens during Noor’s visit back to Tehran, some of it delightful, some of it dangerous and frightening, and it changes Noor…you might say she comes of age.
I loved The Last Days of Café Leila though I cried more than I like. I loved the people of the Café, this huge, informal family that kept true to the spirit of hospitality and family through hardship, loss, and separation. I enjoyed the book and want the author to write a cookbook. The author has written a memoir with recipes, but I want lots of recipes and pictures because this book made me hungry. The descriptions of cooking and food are everywhere, rich and evocative and worth drooling over. She creates such a complete and living picture of Café Leila I will be disappointed if there is no such cafe somewhere in Tehran.

Any family saga covering multiple generations will have a mix of grief and joy. Most of the time, the grief is balanced by love, though the tragic death of Pari, Noor’s mother, can never be balanced, only endured. She and Zod were magnificent and her death broke something in Noor that was only truly mended more than thirty years later when she returned. While The Last Days of Café Leila is sad at times, most of the time it is joyful and vibrant. It’s one of those books that would make a wonderful film that would be shot with with filmy lenses and bright sunlight, with beautiful music, and there would be roles for half the BBC Masterpiece Theater roster.

The Last Days of Café Leila will be published April 18th. I received an advance e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.

http://tonstantweaderreviews.wordpress.com/2017/04/08/9781616205850/ ( )
  Tonstant.Weader | Apr 8, 2017 |
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