Recommended Reading: Diana Abu-Jaber’s “Life Without a Recipe”

Life Without a Recipe

Diana Abu-Jaber’s Life Without a Recipe has popped up twice on SwF&F, once on the writing life and once as a companion piece (in my reading life, if in no other way) to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic.  I think it’s time to stop talking about how reading Life Without a Recipe made me a better writer and talk about what a pleasure the book itself is to read.

“There are two people who can stop you from getting what you want – the person outside of you and the person inside of you.  Guess which is more powerful?”

-Aunt Aya, Life Without a Recipe

Abu-Jaber has a knack for finding the perfect family moments to make you smile – particularly if you have a large clan of your own.  It’s these moments, plus the tension between her grandmother Grace and her father Bud, which give the early chapters their heat.  There are also two failed marriages and a brief career as an erotica writer, all while striving to find her artistic voice.

Later chapters read like little mini-mysteries, each with a question that pulls the reader forward – will she have a child?  Will this person live?  Will the crying ever stop?  Will they find the right home?

There is something I think I couldn’t quite get until I was a bit older, which is that there are unique configurations of time and people.  They belong to each-other for a while, months or years, atoms in a crystal, until eventually, bit by bit, they fall away.  That’s the part a younger person doesn’t believe – that it won’t last forever, that this assortment will never come together again.

-Diana Abu-Jaber, Life Without a Recipe

Reading this passage made me think of the community theater geeks I knocked around with after college in Syracuse, the group of musicians and dancers I explored Richmond with during my summer jobs, the restaurant crazies I partied with until dawn when I moved to Miami, the too-smart retail and restaurant rockstars I drank and talked shit with when I switched to Starbucks, and later to bookselling.

When friendship knots form in your thirties, you know that there’s a timeline.  It won’t last.  That knowledge doesn’t make you a better friend – you’re still too caught up in your own shit – but it makes you appreciate those shared moments with a depth and richness the twenty-something version of you can’t reach.

The walls are covered with canvases… At seventy-three, after a half-century of Bud’s stories and opinions, my mother steps into the new stillness and starts to work.  I wonder if my grandmother Grace – herself filled with barely-suppressed energy – had sensed this desire in her daughter, lying in wait.  “Women will pour everything they have into a man,” she’d lamented.

-Diana Abu-Jaber, Life Without a Recipe

Abu-Jaber isn’t a poet, but damned if she doesn’t write with beautiful economy and charged imagery.

After almost thirty-five years of family, roommates, and husbands, the move into the tiny apartment marked the first time in my life I would truly live in my own space.  I’d touched the sliding glass door, the pane so thin I could feel the traffic thrum of a distant bridge along the bones in my forearm.  The sense of this opening out, threaded with fear, was also sharp and sure, a diamond-hard bolt: the first moment of hearing your own voice.  It takes such a long time, I thought, to get to the starting place.

-Diana Abu-Jaber, Life Without a Recipe

Every page of Life Without a Recipe is filled with heart.  Like all good memoirs, it reflects your life back to you in a way that makes you appreciate its richness.

What more do you need?



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