I just finished reading 2 great books that I loved – descriptive, historical novels with a touch of romance, strong female characters that helped the plot unfold satisfyingly. Both also happened to be set in Paris. Of all the places I’ve visited, I feel like I could go back to Paris and live for awhile. In the 3 days I was there, we didn’t get to much beside meandering through touristy spots, galleries, and landmarks.
But the sights, sounds, and scents stick in my head: sipping a glass of full bodied wine in the cool grass before the lit up Eiffel tower, the buzz of people chattering as they pass by, melt in your mouth crepes at a local bakery, dusty cobbled streets, exquisitely crafted sculptures on display in public spaces for all to enjoy, the expansive green lawns lushly surrounding the streets, the river Seine lapping and winking in the sunlight.
The Paris Wife
The first book (which I got on my e-reader from the library!) was The Paris Wife. I didn’t have high expectations for this one – I don’t usually go for historical fiction. It focuses on the love affair between Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley – their whirlwind courtship mostly forged through love letter, marriage, and move to Paris where they begin to make a life together.
The scene in Paris at the time – hitting the bottle hard, living fast and loose in a freewheeling group that included other writers of the “Lost Generation” like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound, contributes to the way their lives unfold. They lead a bit of a shallow existence, flitting from party to dinner, friends come and go, Hadley practices piano and Ernest writes (working as a journalist and also on his short stories and novels), and they seem both to understand each other in moment, but feel utterly alone in others. The Hemingways actually come to Toronto for Hadley to deliver their child, but Ernest hates the dullness as well as his job at the paper, and is drawn back to the excitement and enchantment of Paris.
Though it’s based on reality, the author does a great job of unravelling everyday occurrences with memorable incidents, from Hadley’s shopping dates with friends to going to Spain to witness the running of the bulls, which in turn inspires Hemingway’s great novel The Sun Also Rises. They try to keep up with the glitzy lifestyle of their friends, taking skiing vacations, engaging a nanny to watch the baby, while Ernest’s career develops. This all hurtles towards the affair which will tear them apart, but builds slowly and had me shaking my head at some points, wondering exactly how it would turn out in the end.
Despite Hadley being somewhat superficial, breathlessly infatuated with a not such a bit of a self-destructive man, I found her voice to be frank and I grew to like her a lot. Throwing in the rich setting of Paris, gritty and glamorous in turns, and this book is a real winner for me.
The Painted Girls
The second book which I just finished is The Painted Girls. Also set in Paris, starting in 1878, it tells the story of three sisters: Antoinette, Marie and little Charlotte, whose mother has turned her back on them and towards absinthe, and they are trying to scrape a living. The younger girls enter into the world of ballet as petites rats, looking for a way to scratch a living without starving, while the eldest starts a romance with a brutish, common fellow who makes her feel loved and takes her out of herself for a little while when she’s with him.
Marie, the middle sister, is scrawny and hard-working and attracts the eye of Degas, an eccentric artist who haunts the ballet studio, and who pays her to model for him. He is bent on capturing real life moments and everyday emotions – rather than pretty pictures for people to hang in their salons. “The new painters pencil is infused with the essence of life, and his artworks capture the true story of a heart and a body.”
It’s beautifully written, with the descriptive words making you feel everything form the ballet slips brushing the wood floors, the turpentine smell lingering in Degas’ studio, and it’s also an interesting spin on viewing society through the eyes of the three sisters facing hardships as they grow up. They made mistakes and at times it seemed like their characters strayed from the way they’d been rendered all along – but in the end, I found this to be pretty realistic in their imperfections, especially given their age and the world they were facing.
I’m at a bit of a loss for what to read next after being swept away by these two tales of life in Paris. My mind doesn’t want to leave those stories behind and I have a feeling it’s because of my lingering love for the great city. Sometime I’ll go back, and hopefully travel around a bit further into France too.