The Last Days of Café Leila
By Donia Bijan
Algonquin Books, 2017
304 pages, $25.95
Reviewed by Rachel Wooley
The Last Days of Café Leila tracks Café Leila’s full life, from its opening by the Russian couple who melded their traditional foods with Persian cuisine to what looks like – but may not be – its imminent closure three generations later. Author Donia Bijan appears to have drawn on her own immigrant experiences of the Islamic Revolution in 1978; her first book, a memoir titled Maman’s Homesick Pie, explored food – both Eastern traditional dishes and Western fast food – as a means to immerse in culture.
The book opens in present-day San Francisco with Iran-born Noor preparing an elaborate picnic for her sixteenth wedding anniversary. Her subsequent disposal of the feast a few pages later symbolizes the disaster that ultimately sends her home to her father in Tehran with her reluctant teenage daughter, Lily. Zod stayed behind to continue operating the inherited Café Leila; it becomes a place for community during and after the revolution, the effects of which are still widely felt in daily life.
The novel starts a bit slowly, as Noor flounders a bit in her American life before being summoned home by Zod, but once they reach Tehran – and Café Leila, which feels like the true protagonist of this book – it’s easy to get wrapped up in the rich description of the sights, sounds, and smells of this colorful, difficult, nuanced world. The preparation of food is one of the most important rituals throughout Last Days, offering vivid descriptions of the ingredients prepared for the café’s beloved dishes. It brings the reader into the café along with the eclectic family surrounding the aging Zod. The dishes each have their own significance: they represent heritage and ceremony; they mark celebration and mourning; they fulfill the nourishment of both body and soul. There is comfort and purpose in the routine of preparing and serving traditional dishes, and memories attached to their various ingredients. In many ways, then, the food is the constant in a world that keeps changing and revealing itself as something other than what it first appeared.
As the Eastern and Western worlds tug farther apart and the future pulls further from the events of the past, Café Leila too remains a constant. But Zod is content – determined, even – to let the café end with him, as he strongly feels that Noor and Lily belong in America. “These days,” he says, “we’re like your old dollhouse, still standing, but just a curiosity…everything interesting and exciting has already happened.”
The novel moves through some of these “interesting and exciting” things in its four parts, showcasing Zod’s and Noor’s childhoods up through their respective marriages. The order of these events, while not told chronologically, paints the characters as vividly as the dishes they prepare. For example, Noor’s relationship with her daughter Lily, who begins the novel as an unlikeable cliché of a privileged teenager, personifies the confusion and lack of understanding that often seems present between the Eastern and Western worlds. In Tehran, Lily undergoes a transformation during her reluctant immersion in the life at Café Leila – and finds meaningful connections despite language barriers. Noor, meanwhile, might frustrate the assertive Western reader as much as she does Zod with her apparent lack of agency or initiative – “You cannot stay here,” he tells her of Tehran, “because staying here makes you a child.” Indeed, she folds easily into the café life, the comforts of her childhood, and even the Persian language of her youth. But before long, the dangers of the oppressive government make themselves apparent through a number of events that hit close to home (including the revealing of the circumstances surrounding her mother’s mysterious death years before).
Perhaps it is the strength of this circumstantial family that causes Noor to make what initially feels like a surprising choice at the end of the novel. Is she falling into the pattern of well-worn ease that her father warned her against, or finally making choices on her own despite what others would have her do? It is, of course, more complicated than this, but has to do with that universal desire of finding our place in a world where it is increasingly easy to go “adrift, entangled” in our daily distractions and obligations. The quiet strength of all of these characters – each trying to do what is right and just in a world that doesn’t always agree or cooperate – will stick with the readers like the rich aroma of a slow-cooked meal. It isn’t always easy to understand the heart of another, though the generations of Café Leila would contend that it is closely connected to the stomach. This novel creates a place where one can find nourishment for both.
This novel is not fast-paced or plot-driven (though Noor’s and Lily’s time in Tehran is certainly full of adventure) but instead delves fully and thoughtfully into the lives and feelings of the characters and explores their motivations and interactions. It’s also a lovely examination of life and society in Tehran through the lens of the café. Readers will become immersed in the atmosphere of this little community and, like Noor, may not want to leave.