Review: The Last Days of Cafe Leila by Donia Bijan

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Story:

Noor is estranged from her doctor-husband and decides to take their all-American daughter, Lily, back to Tehran to be with her dying father. Culture clashes, sweet family times, coming of age moments, and a frightening look at life in a religious police state make this a very compelling story.

What I Liked:

[Noor] had imagined Americans as being insular but instead found them to be restless dreamers, earnest and intent on shaping and changing an imperfect world, while she, at seventeen, didn’t expect much, didn’t think she had it in her to ever take on anything so ambitious. (p. 126)

The story goes back and forth through Noor’s life, her mother’s death, her father putting her on a plane with her brother and giving them freedom in America, meeting her husband, and then coming back to Iran.

I loved Noor and her father’s relationship. I cried reading about her mother. Lily brought to mind all the young teacher volunteers training with my technical volunteer group in Peace Corps years ago. She has that normal American problem of not being able to accept that everywhere isn’t like America and that everyone doesn’t think about things the way Americans do. I adored the trip to the pool with Karim! So utterly American! I laughed at their naive bravery and cheered them on.

Lily would not admit it, but a part of her was beginning to appreciate the freedom that came with captivity. Freedom from peers. After two months of isolation, not worrying about what to wear or what anyone thought of her, not having a public profile or being surrounded by people who had known you all your life and were full of expectation, she was discovering what it was like to have an independent thought. (pp. 170-171).

What I Didn’t Like:

“Didn’t like” is way, way too strong. It was the pace that was hardest for me. This story moves at an Old World pace at first. That’s a minor problem. It’s as though the reader is becoming acclimatized to Iran just as Lily is. My brain adjusted itself to analog pace, to black and white, to Third World bank queue time. Then the story became so compelling.

Rating:

4 out of 5 Stars

This is a sweet, book with a few horrifying moments. I studied the fall of the Shah and more Iranian history in college–I was prepared for the horrors. Others may not be.

The Last Days of Cafe Leila: A Novel by Donia Bijan.

 

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You can read my review of the author’s non-fiction memoir, Maman’s Homesick Pie on my old blog here, or see it on Amazon by clicking the linked book title.

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