Noor’s marriage has suddenly ended, so she and her teenage daughter journey from their home in San Francisco to Iran, where Noor’s elderly father still runs the café that has been in the family for decades. The trip, though cathartic, does not prove to be exactly what Noor expected. Instead, she is presented with opportunities to grow as a parent, as a daughter and as an individual.
With her debut novel, Donia Bijan (author of the acclaimed memoir Maman’s Homesick Pie) offers multiple parallel coming-of-age stories as we visit Noor and her father at different stages of their lives, as well as witness her daughter Lily’s struggles in the present. Iran has changed significantly in the 30 years since Noor has been away, but Café Leila remains an oasis of pleasant memories. Noor and Lily must navigate a shockingly different culture while simultaneously picking up the pieces of their upended lives. The narrative nimbly leaps from one character to another and from past to present, revealing the much-appreciated backstory at just the right pace. A strong theme of parental love weaves throughout, as well as the idea that one’s own evolution may involve parenthood, but does not begin or end with it. The final chapters, while at times sugary-sweet, may elicit a tear or two.
Bijan, a native Iranian, writes of the beauty and customs of her homeland with fondness. She doesn’t shy away from the intense political climate, and much of the book’s action takes place amid the violence that has gripped Iran since the Islamic Revolution. The author is also a former restaurateur who was educated at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and she perfectly captures the universal pleasure of cooking for others.