The Charm of Paris
“Good Americans when they die go to Paris.” — Thomas Appleton, an American writer and artist
Many of us have heard this quote, and Oscar Wilde even used it, slightly reworded, in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890). Yet as much as I respect Appleton and Wilde, I’d say don’t wait that long. Go to Paris while you’re alive. Stroll along the Champs-Élysées, float down the Seine, go to museums and enjoy a cup of coffee in an outdoor café. Can’t do it right now? Then let me tell you about Paris. Better yet, let me present several library books that will do just that.
“Paris: The Novel” (Doubleday, 2013), by Edward Rutherfurd (“New York: The Novel,” Doubleday, 2009), guides readers through eight centuries of Parisian history — from the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral to the building of the Eiffel Tower, from the German occupation to the student revolts of the 1960s. You’ll follow the lives of several generations of Parisians: merchants, inventors, aristocrats and commoners — mostly fictional characters but some historical figures. Their stories, set against the grandeur of the city, will give you a glimpse into the inner life of Paris and its role in the history of Western civilization.
“The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery (Europa Editions, 2008) will take you to a contemporary apartment building located in the center of Paris and inhabited by several well-off families. Two people stand out from this bourgeois crowd: 54-year-old Renée, self-taught concierge of the building, and 12-year-old Paloma, daughter of wealthy liberal parents, who contemplates committing suicide on her 13th birthday. When a Japanese tenant moves in, all three establish an unlikely friendship that changes their lives. Cerebral and rather slow-moving, this international bestseller is for those who enjoy philosophy and a character-driven story.
Paris first earned its nickname, “The City of Light,” as a center of education during the Age of Enlightenment, and it later upheld this title with its early adoption of street lights. These days, other cities can boast about generating ideas and illuminating their streets. Yet no other city can beat Paris in the romance department. Elizabeth Bard, author of “Lunch in Paris” (Little, Brown and Co., 2010), tells her readers about falling in love with both a Parisian man and the city itself. Bard’s memoir, sprinkled with humor, American-in-Paris observations and recipes, takes us to Parisian streets, cafés, markets and kitchens, and it is an entertaining read for people interested in French culture, etiquette and cuisine.
“Lessons in French” (Simon & Schuster, 2013), by Hilary Reyl, begins in 1989. Kate, a recent Yale graduate, arrives in Paris to work as a low-paid assistant for famous American photojournalist Kydia Schell. Here, Kate gets entangled in the lives of members of Kydia’s dysfunctional family, meets Parisian artists and intellectuals (Henri Cartier-Bresson makes a brief appearance) and learns about the meaning of love and family.
“The Painted Girls” by Cathy Buchanan, (Riverhead Books, 2013), is set in the late-19th century. Three sisters, Antoinette, Marie and Charlotte van Goethem, are trying to survive the harsh realities of the city and the Paris Opera. Marie, a talented ballerina, is noticed by Edgar Degas, who asks her to pose for his bronze masterpiece “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.” Antoinette gets a small part in a Zola play but falls in love with the wrong man, and Charlotte does anything she can in order to succeed. This well-researched historical novel draws a vivid but heartbreaking picture of Parisian bohemian life. Fans of Tracy Chevalier and Susan Vreeland should take notice.
For a breezier subject, we’ll turn to Jennifer Scott’s “Lessons From Madame Chic” (S&S, 2012). Ladies, if you want to learn about French joie de vivre, this book is exactly what the ““doctor ordered” — a French doctor, that is. Scott, who lived in Paris as a foreign exchange student, compiles a collection of 20 tips that will make you feel — and look! — desirable, passionate and, above all, happy. Although not entirely original (I first heard the advice about wearing luxurious lingerie in my teens, not to mention the “no snacking between meals” bit!), this book is a valuable source for those who appreciate a stylish way of living.
Now let’s go back in time to the Paris of the Jazz Age, described to us by Laurie King, author of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series. King’s forthcoming “The Bones of Paris” (Bantam, 2013) features American detective Harris Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant is hired to find a young American woman who was acting and modeling in Paris but suddenly stopped communicating with her family back in Boston. As Stuyvesant’s investigation progresses, he realizes there is much more at stake than the life of one woman. A depraved monster is hiding in the midst of Paris' artistic community, and Stuyvesant's mission is to find him.
“The Paris Wife” (Ballantine Books, 2011), by Paula McLain, is also set in Paris during the Jazz Age. This historical novel brings to life Hadley Richardson, first wife of Ernest Hemingway, as well as many cultural icons of the day, including Gertrude Stein, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. Despite many challenges, Hadley does her best to raise her son and salvage her marriage to a great but troubled man. Her story is a must-read for devotees of the woman-behind-a-great man genre in general and Melanie Benjamin in particular.
I could continue my list forever, for the charm and mystique of Paris has been explored time and time again, and it will, most definitely, inspire future generations of writers. Ernest Hemingway put it this way: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”