Life Without a Recipe
By Diana Abu-Jaber
W.W, Norton & Co., 2016
Proust may have had his madeleines, but Diana Abu-Jaber has her father’s grape leaves, her grandmother’s Catholic cookies, and her teta’s kknafeh. In “Life Without a Recipe,” all roads lead to the kitchen, a place of healing, love, boundaries and family. Readers who admired Abu-Jaber’s first coming of age memoir, “The Language of Baklava,” will recognize her optimism and breezy tone as she relishes every bite of her existence. “Life without a Recipe” follows Abu-Jaber into adulthood, through two marriages, until she finds love and desire, establishes her own family, and bids a final good bye to her beloved father.
While her western grandmother continually advises the young Abu-Jaber to stay away from men who are just plain no good and to focus on her work, her protective Jordanian father, Bud, wants marriage and grandchildren. Although he pretends not to know his university student daughter is living with her boyfriend, and definitely does not know about her humorous attempt at erotic fiction while still a student, Arab and Arab American readers will recognize the silent and not so silent pressures he exerts. His daughter’s two youthful marriages gently fizzle out like benign experiments in friendship, preparing her an eventually fulfilling and nurturing relationship with the outdoors man, Scott.
Although Abu-Jaber may claim she is working without a recipe, now that she has her man, she realizes the baby clock has ticked and starts to explore the option of adoption. While Bud proposes returning to the old country for a baby boy, Diana and Scott decide on an American adoption in which the mother picks the parents to adopt her child. As parents to be, together they endure the stressful and emotional roller coaster of adoption. And in true Abu-Jaber fashion, Bud adores the multi-racial little girl, proudly announcing to everyone that she looks just like him, and, naturally, the generations bond over food. Unfortunately the joy of becoming a parent does not shield Diana from the grief of losing her father. She confides, “Losing my father is, for a while, like losing my home in the world. The soul’s seat.” Yet her grief deepens her understanding of her father, and her appreciation of family culinary traditions. In “Life Without a Recipe,” Diana Abu-Jaber graciously shares her life stories like a plate of homemade cookies, familiar yet distinctly her own, a bit of salt mitigated by a healthy dose of sugar.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016.