I picked up The Last Days of Café Leila by Donna Bijan based on a hope to find something engaging, well-written, and mature but clean. I was in need of a change of pace from the last couple of YA books I’d just finished. So, skimming the new part of the adult section at the library (while also trying to keep my toddler from pulling down shelves of books) I picked up this one, read the back, found out it partly took place in Tehran, and brought it home.
Since my senior year of college when I read Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, a book that has forever changed my life, I have been especially interested by the middle east, and most especially Iran.
The main character of this book grew up in Iran, and then attended college in the United States and is living there when the book begins. As an immigrant to the US, Noor holds on to some of her family’s culture she has left behind, but also becomes thoroughly westernized in her ideals, way of living, and expectations of life.
Consequentially, when Noor returns to Iran with her US-born daughter Lily to visit Noor’s father after discovering her husband’s infidelity, she sees Iran with new eyes: the perfect lens for an American reader.
As Noor quickly sinks back into her childhood role, Lily struggles to transition to a new culture and environment, and their mother-daughter relationship is brought to an all-time low. As Noor attempts to salvage their relationship, she discovers the importance of standing your ground not only as a parent, but as an individual.
The Last Days of Café Leila is predominantly a story of family with underlying political undertones. While Noor and her father rekindle their relationship, we are brought to feel the tragic loss of beauty and common decency in the recovery stages of revolution.
These political undertones brought depth to this family drama, grounding the story in a very real setting.
While this book definitely had a pro-western bias, the fundamental themes of insecurity, the messiness of life, the difficulties of immigration and assimilation, and ultimately the sacrifice needed to achieve self-actualization were powerful.
This book consumed me until I had read every page. And while I loved the prose, I did feel that the ending left something to be desired. Ultimately, I would rate it a 7/10. I would recommend The Last Days of Café Leila, but I won’t be adding it to my personal collection.