The Last Days of Café Leila: A Novel
First and foremost this is a book about food, which makes it a natural for chef turned writer Donia Bijan. The Last Days of Café Leila follows a Persian family split up by tragic events in Iran and scattered thousands of miles apart. For the characters, the emotional distance is no less, as Bijan draws a fascinating parallel between the various generations of Persians struggling to understand each other.
Politics is bound to be a part of any book about Iran or Iranian Americans. Yet The Last Days of Café Leila hardly discusses politics until the middle of the book. The story revolves around Noor, an Iranian American middle aged woman who returns to her childhood home after an unexpected divorce, her teenage daughter Lily in tow. Readers may find the earlier pages of Noor and Lily’s life in America less than scintillating, perhaps too ordinary and American.
But as the novel progresses, the real story unfolds like the taste of a delicate dessert that needs to be savored awhile to be appreciated. The real story is that of Zod, Noor’s father, the current owned of Café Leila. Undoubtedly the restaurant is the star of the show, the novel’s main character, the entity they all revolve around for better or for worse.
The Café was started by Zod’s father, a Russian settled in Iran, and then handed on to Zod like a loving bequest. He has known nothing except cooking, taking care of guests’ every need even before they know it themselves, putting his blood, sweat, and tears into it from childhood.
“Over the years, he had memorized his mother’s every move like a chess game, so when she reached for a sieve, swept a pastry brush, folded a piroshky, he didn’t follow because he was already there, her muscle memory traveling through him so that if you stood watching them at the kitchen window, their arms moving in billowy sleeves, it would have looked like a well-rehearsed ballet, choreographed until the moment when Nina lifted a cutlet from hit oil with bare hands and Zod yelled from the burn that singed the first two layers of his skin.”
Zod has nurtured it, loved it, experienced the joys of marriage and fatherhood in it. Then the brutality of Iran’s politics rears its ugly head and Café Leila is engulfed in the changes along with the entire country.
Noor comes back to Iran and her father’s café to find solace, but she finds something else quite unexpected. Through her, readers fall in love with the café, or rather with the scrumptious descriptions of food and the daily life of each worker, big and small, of the café. We witness the ups and downs of the nation of Iran through the ups and downs of the three generations of Noor’s family and through the history of the café Leila itself. Noor finds herself learning anew what it means to be a daughter, a mother, and even just a person.
The novel is also chock-full of descriptions of Tehran’s markets and countryside. Zod and his nanny spend many hours in the streets, eating food, enjoying the sights and sounds that go along with such a place:
“. . . they would stop to sample street food from the little stands that dotted their paths. Steam rose from the giant roasted sugar beets, wrapped in newspaper and piping hot. A young boy sat on a wooden crate behind his makeshift juice stand, slicing pomegranates with a meat cleaver and squeezing their juice into small plastic cups, his flushed cheeks matching the color of his fruit. Men sat behind charcoal braziers turning ears of corn and fanning skewered liver kababs they slipped sizzling into pickers of lavash bread with a tangle of cilantro and mint. Ribbons of fruit leather, apricot, plum, tamarind, and cherry, draped like laundry from wires strung between awnings.”
Is this really a book about the last days of a restaurant, or those of a legacy that spans generations? Readers will enjoy this novel filled the idea of homecoming and motherhood, and a rare glimpse into post-revolution Iran, and most importantly the food.