Sweet, Sentimental Stories of Life Beyond Expectations

Review: Life Without a Recipe, by Diana Abu-Jaber

If the world is water, the table is a raft; place your hands on it and hold on.

In her second memoir, Jordanian-American author Diana Abu-Jaber explores the role that motherhood took in her life during her forties, and the wracking losses of two strong, beloved figures who often opposed each other; her father and her grandmother.

This is off to a bad start, that description makes the book sound unbearably and possibly unpleasantly heavy. It’s not. It’s emotional, it touches a nerve regarding grief, but it’s so touchingly beautifully written, like her previous memoir from a decade earlier, one of my favorites I discovered this year, The Language of BaklavaThis one is somewhat less food-centric, as it doesn’t have recipes at each chapter closing like its predecessor, but she incorporates meaningful food associations in sentimental ways in the course of her storytelling.

After describing the circumstances surrounding her first two quickie marriages, Abu-Jaber finds the one that lasts, and with it, is struck by a new desire: to be a mother. They make the decision to adopt, and along comes Gracie, named for her opinionated, influential grandmother. Moving through these later stages of her life (later in comparison to her first memoir, mainly set in childhood), Abu-Jaber shows how these new challenges shaped her, almost showing her decision-making process as it unfolds: “The thought of moving back home stops my breath, an imagine of black water closing over my head.” And so she kept going, even after failed marriages.

It helps to have read the earlier Language of Baklava to really appreciate her family, whose members loom so large in her stories, with their big personalities. That book especially gives insight into her quirky, adored by all who knew him father, Bud. But it’s not entirely necessary to have read it first. Life Without a Recipe focuses more on the maternal or feminine influences in her life, namely the two Graces.

I loved her recollections of time spent with her grandmother, like when they visited Paris together and sampled pastries, and she uses the memory of this time to reflect on growing up:

The dreaminess, [of childhood] I think, was a cloak against fear, the sense of being unequal to the situation at hand. Some kids are flattened by depression, others get angry; for me, there was a static-filled field of uncertainty. Then what do you do? What happens when, thanks to my temperament or circumstances, the fit never feels right, and you’re not at home in yourself? Underneath that is another question: Where is the other path?

She portrays these influential figures in her life through active scenes, like when describing her grandmother intently, lovingly baking a cake: This was how work saved her – the true work, the kind that takes you so deeply and happily into yourself, away from all the other troubles and unsolvable sorts of hurt, and keeps you sound.

Abu-Jaber is a master of the literary rule of show, don’t tell. I remain as in awe of her writing as when reading her first book.

She traces her adulthood stumbles and what led her to writing fiction before spilling her stories in memoir: “I chose fiction, that protective cloak of imagination, so if anyone I knew ever got angry, I could deny everything, insist I made it all up.”

The stories are loosely woven together but it’s a coherent memoir, not essays, with an almost dreamy, removed narrative style.

It’s hard to look. You get so used to life, so surrounded and protected and shielded by the brightness of the morning, the incandescence of childhood just around the last corner – a state you emerged from just yesterday. How to imagine that such a time comes to a close? Ten years earlier, I watched in fragments my grandmother pass away, as if peeping between my fingers – a visit here, a visit there. Even during her last days in the hospital, I was telling myself stories about visiting for the next holiday and also the one after that.

I love her ability to take everyday, relatively privileged struggles like weight loss and connect them to something deeper and meaningful, for example the strong associations between sweets and childhood memory: “Memory runs out at the edges of the forest.” She writes prose like poetry on topics like this that might otherwise be uninteresting to read.

When you’re a bit innocent of the world, many things are unexpected. What’s supposed to keep you safe is what makes you afraid. The thing you can’t have is the thing you want the most. It takes forever just to get to the beginning. No matter how many times I write down the instructions, I forget it all, just as faithfully, and need to study it again. Art and pastry and memory and risk: The days arrange themselves into stories, which are themselves just moments, mere moments.

Her message ultimately is that life goes off the rails, there’s no recipe no matter how good of a cook you are, how much training you have, how much you lean on childhood and family to help or prepare you. Divorces happen, failures and losses happen, children happen beyond the time you expected them or not in the ways you thought they’d come to you. But you still make something sweet and beautiful out of it all, and food is a tool to help you remember and make sense of your past, of those who cared for you, and with that, to soothe the thought of the future.

Life Without a Recipe: A Memoir
by Diana Abu-Jaber

published April 18, 2016 by W.W. Norton

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