It’s summer. The kids are home from school. I’m trying to work at home while at the same time dealing with a visit from the air conditioning worker, a seminar with my 15-year-old daughter on the proper method of sweeping the bathroom, and recovering from my usual evening shift at the newspaper. Then there’s the other chores waiting: fixing the flap on the toilet tank, designing the next woodworking project — a headboard for the marital bed plus more bookcases so I can unpile the books in the unfinished basement — and accomplishing the list of the week’s goals that include tweeting links, editing books, and writing this review.
Which is of an academic who decides to take a year off and live in Paris.
So I was pretty well disposed to hate Eloisa James’ “Paris in Love,” with its romantic watercolor of James walking a dog, her perfect family in the background. It’s effusive blurb by Elizabeth Gilbert (“Eat, Pray, Love”), who converted personal anxieties and a big book advance into an inspirational/enraging book (depending on the reader). The starred review from “Publisher’s Weekly” that praised her discovery that Paris was a “materialist’s playground” and her book an “effervescent diary.”
Grind. Grind. Grind. Grind.
So why am I here talking about a book that I shouldn’t have read if it was going to upset me so? Because there’s a darker side to this story. Darker in a ying-yang fashion, not good-evil.
Simply put, I’m a guy who likes romance novels. Who likes goopy travel books about perfect places. Who, living next to a factory and working in an industry that seems to be going the way of buggy-whip manufacturing, denied the solace of marijuana (kills my non-smoker’s lungs) and alcohol (with my schedule) and video games (kids have that job nailed down), I need something to lose myself in.
And James helped by inverting the self-help narrative Gilbert and her ilk champion in their books, the notion that after a lifetime of living in a shell, you can break out by traveling to exotic locations and exposing yourself to new ideas.
This is an idea I found seductive and illogical. We are who we are, I believe, and those who move to new places forget that they drag themselves along, and soon find themselves in the same patterns and routines, like Raymond Chandler’s aside in the one of the Philip Marlowe books about the guy, after a near-fatal encounter with a falling safe, leaves his family. Years later, Marlowe finds him, the man who underwent a life-changing act and ended up in exactly the same life he left behind.
Change is not impossible, but it’s not as easy as it seems.
In 2009, when James discovered she had breast cancer, she expected a life-is-beautiful epiphany: “I have cancer . . . but the good news is that I will learn to live in the moment.” But she didn’t, in part because she escaped chemotherapy and radiation. She lost a breast, but it was reconstructed.
“Did I have the right to call myself a survivor, especially when my newly reconstructed breast turned out to be so pneumatic and round? I decided the answer was no, explaining my lack of epiphany and my disinclination to watch the sun rise from a downward dog position.”
But she change, in small ways. She gave away her books, her unwanted clothes, her high school term papers (people save these?). Living in a house in New Jersey, she realized that living in Manhattan was an unrealized dream.
So she and her Italian husband, Alessandro, called a Realtor. And, as a result of this opportunity — after leaving one house and moving into another — they decided to spend a year in Paris. They found a bilingual school for their children (girl and a boy, both under 16), found an apartment in the nineth arrondissement, made plans to write her books and got to packing.
“Paris in Love” — can I still praise the book and hate on the title? I see that and think: Who is in love? — is an episodic diary, expanded from her Twitter and Facebook posts, featuring her family as they moved in Parisian society, helped along by visits from Alessandro’s family, including a fat Chihuahua and a running story about various attempts to help it lose weight. Think of the book as “A Year in Provence,” that charming 1989 account by Peter Mayle that kicked off the living-abroad memoir genre.
Probably at this point, it’s best to say you’re on your own with regards to whether or not you like it. James’ observations range through her memories of growing up in the Midwest, feeling out of place among her rural brethren; her account of returning for a high school reunion with her husband — when she was Mary Bly, daughter of “Iron John” poet Robert Bly — is especially funny in a cringing way. She walks through the city meeting fashionably dressed women, charming bums, wonderful stores selling exquisite objects (Chocolate in the shape of shoes! Elegant lingerie! Chestnuts roasted over oil barrels in the street! Antique canes!), amiable protest marches, in short, the picture-postcard city.
After awhile, one begins to wonder: did she never find an empty building? A ruined neighborhood? A fat Frenchwoman? This is not snark; I really would like to know, because living around the corner from Harrisburg, dying by inches due to corruption, poor money management, the outflow of anyone with half a brain cell to the suburbs, I wonder what can be done to turn it around. Not that it will ever be Paris, but a place where someone could set up a shop that sells chocolates that wouldn’t have to risk being robbed several times a year.
(In fact, I wonder if the type of health care offered plays a role in this. If you live in a society where taxpayers fund health care, is it easier to open small, self-supporting shops. Is it easier to change jobs if you didn’t have to worry your new employer’s provider bans “pre-existing conditions” (for which there should be a special circle in Hell for whomever came up with that rule). As the big box stores fail to provide services smaller stores can offer — used books, fabric, exquisitely crafted objects — the cities with its condensed population could offer homes for these businesses, if the owners didn’t have to worry about coming up with thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands, to maintain a healthcare policy.)
Back to Eloisa James, who provides us with a lovely vision of Paris at its best, but her family at their most common and worse. The children behave like children: oppositional, uncommunicative, slovenly in their homework (for awhile, they get better). They have their good moments and their bad. Her husband comes off much better, loving and affection but he is frequently out of the house about his business.
Perhaps the best way to describe “Paris in Love” is a box of bon-bons: stories, incidents, observations, and memories of wonderful tastes, sights and things. At the end, James throws in appendices of the stores, museums, restaurants and other worthy sites, which I regret I shall probably never visit, but for a few brief moments between shifts, between obligations, late at night and in-between, I was grateful to experience.
Jonathan Yardley’s review at The Washington Post
Fordham Observer’s Q&A with Mary Bly.