Monday, June 12, 2017

The Last Days of Cafe Leila by Donia Bijan

This novel caught my eye a few months back for two reasons:  it is set in Iran, and it's about food.  It's also about coming home after a very long absence.  

Flipping between present day Iran and San Francisco, and Iran before and during the revolution in the late 1970's and early 1980's, The Last Days of Cafe Leila tells the story of the Yadegar family; Russian immigrants who moved to Iran in the mid-twentieth century to escape persecution and settled in Tehran, opening a popular cafe.  Yanik and Nina have three sons:  Davoud, Zod, and Morad.  Zod is the son who works alongside his parents, cooking delicious meals for friends and family.  The Cafe Leila becomes very well known, and a hotel is built to accomodate guests, along with nightly music, dances, and a beautiful garden full of delightul scents and exotic plants.  It's a happy life, until tragedy suddenly takes a family member.  Zod marries Pari, and they quickly fall in love, raising Noor and her brother Mehrdad with the help of Naneh Goli, Zod's childhood nanny.  

And then the revolution comes, and with it terror and uncertainty, and terrible, terrible heartbreak.  Zod decides to send his children to the United States to safety.  Noor and Mehrdad, speaking no English, find themselves in Oakland, struggling through college, unsure of their surroundings, and for Noor, experiencing culture shock.  They both know they can't go home. 

Interwoven with this story is present day Noor, now the mother of teenage Lily, and going through a divorce from Nelson, a cardiologist with a wandering eye.  Zod is dying, and he calls Noor home for the first time in decades. It's the perfect excuse to take Lily and escape the pain and humiliation of her husband's infidelity.  Lily, of course, is very angry and not at all interested in visiting Iran or the grandfather she's never met. But for Noor, it is a crucial turning point in her life, and how she sees herself. For so long a timid, gentle woman, she's forced to move out of her boundaries while at the same time physically covering herself with garments when she leaves Cafe Leila and the apartment upstairs.  Iran becomes for her a place of freedom.

This truly is a family saga with plenty of love, laughter, and loss. The food is the most magical part of this novel; pomegranates, lemons, kebabs, perogie, rose water, honey; it is so much a part of the culture of Iran, but also the history of the Yadegar family and their blending of Russian and Persian foods. There is a bit of a twist at the end, but I didn't think it was very surprising, and it was the best way to end the novel.  Who knows?  There may be more to Noor's story in a future novel. 

Rating:  3/6 for a novel about a woman traveling back home to rediscover herself, her family history, and her future.  The descriptions of food were mouthwatering and have me craving pomegranates and perogies.  It is an interesting look at how people can live life in a society that has undergone tremendous, painful change. 

Available in hardcover, audio, ebook, and large print.


  1. This sounds wonderful! *adds to TBR immediately*

  2. The setting of Iran and the cafe and its garden attract me.