Foodies might easily get lost in Diana Abu-Jaber's delectable descriptions of hand-crafted pastries in her new book, "Birds of Paradise" (W.W. Norton & Co., $25.95), and tropical gardeners might as easily wander through her lush descriptions of Miami's neighborhoods.
But "Birds of Paradise" is not about cooking or the tropics. Instead, it turns on a runaway teenager, Felice, and the impact her absence has on her family.
Felice has not disappeared never to be seen or heard from again. Instead, she makes the deliberate choice to separate herself from her elite pastry-chef mother, food co-op owning brother and corporate real estate attorney father. She stays in touch, fitfully and on her own terms, but won't tell her mother why she won't live at home any longer.
Abu-Jaber, author of four previous novels, drew on her own adolescence for some aspects of the novel. Chafing under the strict upbringing imposed by her Jordanian father in New York state, she finished high school early and was barely 16 years old when she enrolled at SUNY Oswego.
"I needed the space, I needed the freedom," said Abu-Jaber in a telephone interview last week. "I don't recommend it as a general rule. But I was really young, totally naive and gullible and had all kinds of misadventures in college."
She will be in Sarasota Sept. 13 as part of a book tour that will have her crisscrossing the country.
The seeds of the novel were planted when Abu-Jaber and her husband, Scott, moved to Miami several years ago and were talking about starting a family (they now have Gracie, 3).
"The news just seemed to be filled with these really scary stories, tales of teenager runaways, missing children, very scary wild stuff going on," she said. "So I was thinking about that, but also having that conversation about starting a family and why had it taken us so long, why had I put it off all these years. Partly it was the news, partly it was looking at my own fears. I think I was afraid that any child we had would do to us what we had done to our parents."
Abu-Jaber was also contemplating the parental conundrum of wanting to protect children but recognizing the impossibility of that once they reach adolescence.
"I was really interested in the tension between how much we can and can't control the situation," she said. "The kernel of the whole novel came out of those imaginings. Then I was chasing down the story of why did this happen, what happened to her; that was something I had to discover over the course of the writing itself. I didn't exactly know what had happened to her."
And the trigger for Felice's flight from home came as a surprise to Abu-Jaber.
"I had a theory," she said. "I always know an ending, I always have an idea of what happened and how it's going to go, but I have to sit with my stories and the process of the story gradually reveals itself and it's an organic process. It just takes time."