The Last Days of Café Leila is one of those stories that pluck at your heart strings and captivate your senses. Donia Bijan writes about a loving family that finds its way to love from generation to generation, through the tragedies of revolution and the reluctant diaspora of emigration. The focus of the story is Noor who grew up at Café Leila in Tehran but who was sent to America by her father, Zod, when she graduated high school. Zod sent both his children, hoping to protect them from the excesses of the Iranian theocracy.
Noor has been married twenty years when she discovers her husband, Nelson, has been cheating on her. She leaves him. Zod invites her to come back to Tehran for a few weeks hoping to heal her heart. She takes her reluctant and resentful daughter Lily with her.
Café Leila is a magical place. Founded by Zod’s Russian immigrant parents Yanik and Nina back in the 1930s, it was a center of hospitality and celebration. The story carries us through their early years, the tragic death of their oldest son that brought Zod back to Tehran from his University studies in Paris to marry Pari, his brother’s fiancée, a happy marriage that perhaps made Noor overly-optimistic about her own.
This family is open-hearted and full of life and they draw people in, they take people in, creating an extended family of friends, of employees who are more like family, and even strangers who need shelter. A lot happens during Noor’s visit back to Tehran, some of it delightful, some of it dangerous and frightening, and it changes Noor…you might say she comes of age.
I loved The Last Days of Café Leila though I cried more than I like. I loved the people of the Café, this huge, informal family that kept true to the spirit of hospitality and family through hardship, loss, and separation. I enjoyed the book and want the author to write a cookbook. The author has written a memoir with recipes, but I want lots of recipes and pictures because this book made me hungry. The descriptions of cooking and food are everywhere, rich and evocative and worth drooling over. She creates such a complete and living picture of Café Leila I will be disappointed if there is no such cafe somewhere in Tehran.
Any family saga covering multiple generations will have a mix of grief and joy. Most of the time, the grief is balanced by love, though the tragic death of Pari, Noor’s mother, can never be balanced, only endured. She and Zod were magnificent and her death broke something in Noor that was only truly mended more than thirty years later when she returned. While The Last Days of Café Leila is sad at times, most of the time it is joyful and vibrant. It’s one of those books that would make a wonderful film that would be shot with with filmy lenses and bright sunlight, with beautiful music, and there would be roles for half the BBC Masterpiece Theater roster.
The Last Days of Café Leila will be published April 18th. I received an advance e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.