The Last Days of Cafe Leila (NetGalley)
When I was in high school, I read Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again in junior English. I don’t remember much about the novel except for its melancholy. And I’m guessing I’d appreciate the novel much more now that I’ve lived a few lives myself. But the title has always stayed with me, and I thought of it immediately after turning the last page of Donia Bijan’s beautiful novel The Last Days of Cafe Leila.
Set in Tehran, Iran the novel follows the Yadegar family from the 1930s through the revolution and on to present day. Zod inherits Cafe Leila from his parents and it is the social center for his Tehran neighborhood and beyond. (Zod also inherits a wife from his brother, but that is another story.) The food is exquisite, the staff warm, and all are welcome. The revolution in 1979 changed life in Tehran. Sensing impending danger, Zod sent his two children Noor and Mehrdad to the United States to attend university. Thirty years pass before Noor returns home, impelled by a crisis–her husband’s infidelity–and dragging along her teenage daughter Lily.
Noor wraps herself in the comfort of her childhood memories as she helps run the cafe and tends to Zod whose health is failing. The food, her childhood bedroom, her beloved nanny all ground her again–and eventually transform her relationship with Lily. And perhaps because of the solace Noor finds in the Cafe Leila, she decides to stay.
Except you can’t go home again.
Too much has changed, and try as she might, Noor can’t deny her American sensibilities. How else to explain her outrage at the acid attack on a young girl Lily befriends? Or the assertiveness that turns dangerous when she is stopped by the police? Noor might very well love her childhood home, but she surely can’t live there any more. The country has changed; she has changed.
And of course there is the food. The novel is, after all, set in a cafe, so there is no shortage of exotic smells and spices and Persian dishes. We have this: Zod “filled the pockets [of featherlight brioche] not just with beef and onions, but peach jam, saffron rice pudding …” And this: “He soaked prunes and took out meaty shanks to roast with onion for plum soup. he shaped chickpea patties, strained yogurt, and stirred quince custard.” Amber Darjeeling tea stirred with honey. Pomegranate juice.
The Last Days of Cafe Leila is a beautifully written love letter, evocative and moving–a story that transports the reader to a time and place that won’t soon be forgotten.