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Refuge - Dina Nayeri Life is just a bowl of (sour) cherries

Finding a book for this CBR10Bingo square was oddly tough for me, as nothing in my TBR list really jumped out at me as being obviously about food. When I started pulling my books off the shelf, one by one, and saw those gorgeous yellow cherries on the cover of Dina Nayeri’s Refuge, I knew this was the one.

Early in the book, Niloo’s father imparts his life’s philosophy to his young daughter: “Life in Ardestoon is a shank of lamb so bursting with marrow, you can suck until your cheeks are full and there’s still more to pry with a pinky or to shake out fist over fist. Niloo joon, never be the one who looks around worrying if her face is greasy.”

But, as Niloo later describes, “there was something he loved more: not poetry or medicine or family, but oblivion.” Her Baba is an opium addict who stayed behind when his wife and children fled Iran, unable and unwilling to leave behind his addictions and comforts. In the 20 years following their exile, he sees his family only four times, each visit increasingly strained. Baba’s life is still driven by addiction and selfishness, and his children and ex-wife grow distant and unfamiliar to him. In return, his children see him as an Old World relic, a waste of a man not worth their time and affection.

I’ve really struggled to write this review. I didn’t hate the book enough to flat-out trash it, but I certainly didn’t like it and found it incredibly frustrating. How could a book with the line “Food is joy. Joy is everything.” be such a drag? The good parts — Nayeri’s evocative language, a new cultural perspective from what I’m used to, several sympathetic minor characters — didn’t come close to outweighing the bad — shallow and unlikable main characters, too much telling and not enough showing, whiplash-inducing swings in mood and attitude. There’s no anchor in character, just lovely yet ultimately hollow narration. It’s like a big bowl of table scraps: some of the morsels are delicious on their own, but mixed together, it’s an unappetizing mess.

(This review was originally posted as part of Cannonball Read 10: Sticking It to Cancer, One Book at a Time.)