Friday, December 11, 2015

What we're reading: Paris Fiction

Here, as promised, is a small selection of novels set in Paris. While many in our collection focus on the time period known as the Belle Epoque (1871 to 1914) or take as their setting the events of the Nazi occupation (1940s), there are also modern representations, both literary and chick lit lite!

The Paris Architect, by Charles Belfoure
Architect Lucien Bernard is not a nice guy: He doesn't care about the Jews being persecuted by Nazis in occupied France, he just wants to make enough money to support his ex-wife, his mistress, and his lifestyle, and to grow his reputation as an architect. This leads him to work for both sides, on the one hand creating ingenious hiding places for Jews in Paris apartments, and on the other hand designing modern factories for the Germans. He goes on like this until a careless mistake results in tragedy, and causes him to begin reevaluating his life. This book details all the horrors of the occupation--fear, brutality, shortages, betrayals--but also the beauties of architecture and the possibilities of redemption. Although this sounds like a description of a thoughtful literary work, most readers liken it more to a Ken Follett novel in terms of tension, pacing, detail, and lively style.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, by Francine Prose
“Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris, 1932” is the title of a photograph that launches photographer Gabor Tsenyi's career. It is a picture of two women, a cross-dressing athlete named Lou Villars, who will become France's first female race car driver and then, later, an infamous Nazi collaborator, and Arlette, her lover, who will leave Lou for a powerful cop/gangster. The novel opens in 1928, and tracks the transformation of Lou Villars from unhappy child to disappointed lover to monster, a life based on a real woman named Violette Morris. Other characters are also inspired by real-life figures, including the Hungarian photographer Brassai and a dissolute American writer who resembles Henry Miller. The setting, the Chameleon Club, can almost be considered another character, since it is the safe haven embraced by the lesbians, gays, cross-dressers, and other characters in the book who must change their stripes to survive. There are several vehicles used to reveal the story, including the photographer's letters to his parents, an unpublished biography, works by an American writer, and memoirs of two women rivals for the photographer's love. The novel develops an in-depth perception of a time of polarizing evil and the chameleon-like characters who survive it. Literary, complex historical fiction.

The Paris Winter, by Imogen Robertson
Paris in 1909 was a place where the arts developed in new and exciting ways, and wealthy Europeans flooded the city to enjoy its aura of affluence and culture. But the Belle Epoque was also, behind the scenes, an era of below-subsistence-level poverty for some. This book follows three woman at different socioeconomic levels: Maud, an Englishwoman come to Paris to develop her talent as a painter, who is willing to starve for her art and may well do so if no one lends her a helping hand; Tanya, a wealthy Russian debutante, also studying at the Lafond Academie, but under vastly different circumstances; and Yvette, who sits as a model at the Academie. These three women become entangled in a scheme of betrayal and revenge.

I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You,
by Courtney Maum
Richard has just ended an affair (or rather was dumped by his mistress), and is mourning the loss of that relationship, only to go into total panic mode when his wife finds out about the affair and has an understandably bad reaction (just when he thought he was in the clear). He spends the rest of the book desperately trying to get her (the wife) back, while simultaneously attempting to jump-start his faltering art career (partially with the hope of impressing her). So really, no one has any fun ever in any part of the story, except in flashback! I liked this debut by Courtney Maum pretty well--it is set in Paris, which is always a plus; one of the characters is an artist, which I like; the characters are complex, individual, and interesting; and the writing is pretty good. I wish, however, that someone would explain that title to me!

French Lessons, by Ellen Sussman
Three people take a trip to Paris and, as they wander the boulevards accompanied by hired French tutors, each discovers things about themselves they didn't expect. The three are Josie, a young, pregnant schoolteacher who has come to the city to recover from the death of her lover; Riley, a new expatriate and mother of two young children, who is struggling to connect with her busy husband and acclimate to her newly adopted home; and Jeremy, the quiet husband of a famous actress, who has accompanied his wife on a film shoot. The tutors are equally disparate and interesting characters.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
In the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by a rather vacuous group of tenants, lives Rene, the concierge. She appears to fulfill every stereotype of concierges: fat, cantankerous, and addicted to television. But she is actually a cultured woman who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture, and her hobby is scrutinizing the lives of her tenants. 
Also living at this address is Paloma, a talented 12-year-old genius whose despair has led her to plan suicide on the 16th of June, which is her 13th birthday. Fortunately for Paloma, before that happens she and Rene discover each other as kindred souls through the offices of a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu, This one got wildly differing reviews on Goodreads, from a one-star "utterly banal" rating to five stars, "absolutely breathtaking." You be the judge.

The Art of French Kissing, by Kristin Harmel
Dumped, fired, and homeless, Emma Sullivan embodies the emotional triumvirate that is the start to every chick lit novel, but now...Emma is in Paris! Granted, she has a difficult job. Granted, she is torn between two men. But she's in Paris! Romance! High fashion! Unfathomable varieties of cheese! Yes, this is a book of exclamation points, a lollipop of a romance, but the consensus is that it's cute and entertaining, a light read with a Paris theme.

The Girl with No Shadow, by Joanne Harris
The return of Vianne Rocher from Harris's first bestseller, Chocolat. (You may also remember the story from the movie, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.) Five years have passed since Vianne and Anouk fled the pious French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes for a much more staid existence in the Montmartre district of Paris. But she's still working in a chocolate shop, where dark arts, dark chocolate, and characters both bitter and sweet will discover and engage with her. A sequel not to be missed.

If you want more (or different) Paris fiction, Burbank Public Library has 100 more novels on the subject, plus another 25 or so in Young Adult Fiction--look in our catalog today! (Hint: Put "Paris" in the "subject" box, and choose "fiction" or "young adult fiction" from the "location" drop-down menu.) Enjoy your vicarious trip!

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