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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

My View of Edward Rutherfurd's Paris: The Novel

Paris: The Novel, by Edward Rutherfurd, is an 805 page historical epic that takes a great deal of time and attention to read.  It is not the length of the book that demands so much.  It is the structure of the book that sets the bar so high.

For those readers unfamiliar with Edward Rutherfurd and his epic novels, I will note a little bit about what makes a Rutherfurd novel unique.  Like a James Michener novel, these books are centered on one geographic location.  However, whereas Michener takes a larger view of a place like Spain (Iberia) or South Africa (The Covenant), Rutherfurd takes a smaller bit of real estate, such as England's New Forest region (The Forest) and England's Salisbury plain (Sarum).  Lately, he has been tackling individual cities: New York, London, and Dublin.  Like Michener, Rutherfurd follows a handful of families across many generations through the ebb and flow of real historical events.  All of this is true of Paris: The Novel.

Unlike some of his earlier works, Rutherfurd has chosen to take his stories out of chronological order, skipping back and forth from various time frames.  I felt this was done as a way to increase the suspense over some of the story lines.  I did not mind this, and even felt it might have been a benefit to the book.  It kept the story fresh, and I was happy not to be forced to read the older history before being allowed a peek at the era of the Belle Époque.  I've seen some complaints in other reviews regarding this jumbled ordering of the stories.  I did not mind at all.

I won't get into particulars as far as the families and their story lines are concerned.  Suffice to say, there are a number of families, representing various strata of society: aristocrats, laborers, professionals, and thieves.  Watching the families grow and evolve is part of the charm of an epic like this.  Discovering secrets and their long-reaching consequences is another.  It is a nice reminder to us that what we do today can have extreme consequences on our descendants, both good and bad.  One can also see how some family traits can finally be broken by the younger generations.

Atop Montmartre, the site of much of the action
in Rutherfurd's Paris: The Novel (photo
from RoomWithNoView)
The star of the book, of course, is that grand lady, Paris.  The City of Light.  No matter the subject matter of the time period, whether it be the uprising of the Paris Commune, or the French Revolution, or the golden age of the Sun King, or even the building of the Eiffel Tower, Rutherfurd keeps our eyes focused solely on that most magical of cities.  The reader is taken to the heights of Montmartre, to the bridges over the Seine, and into many famous landmarks that are stacked like chord wood within the boundaries of the city.  He also takes many opportunities to inform us about the history and culture of the city.  Most tour guides tell small stories to back up their recitation of the facts.  Rutherfurd takes the opposite approach, using his characters to back up his story by reciting many facts and anecdotes.  A few times this becomes tedious, seemingly too unreal and staged.  If I had not been such a fan of Paris, I would have found it a bit boring.  However, I love Paris, and I enjoyed all the little tour-guide moments.  No matter that I already knew much of what he was talking about beforehand.

At this point, you would have to guess that I loved the book.  That I couldn't put it down.  It was right up my alley.  It was everything I would want in a book.  And for the most part, you would have guessed right.  Except...

I was initially disappointed with the story lines.  I understand that a book of this size requires a slow approach, and that the author can take his time to build the atmosphere and complex story.  However, it was readily apparent that the book lacked a bit of that Paris pizzazz.  This is a city known for its party atmosphere.  It is exciting.  There is so much that can go on there.  Yet the stories were very low-keyed.  I enjoyed them, I had simply expected something more compelling to read.  A good deal of it turned into a soap opera, just detailing who was sleeping with whom, and who was mad at whom.  I admit that I grew dismayed near the middle of the book.  It seemed as if if Edward Rutherfurd had blown it.  He had the most beautiful and exciting city in the world to play with.  Shouldn't he have come up with something to match its energy and glamour?

Author Edward Rutherfurd
In fact, dialing down the story a notch,  the author allowed himself to build solid characters and situations so that when they all ran together near the last one hundred and fifty pages it finished with a bang.  The last time period he covers is that of the German occupation.  And this is where all the background story pays off.  We see how people with such rich family backgrounds reacted to the pressure-cooker that was Nazi-occupied Paris.  From that point on, the story no longer looked back.  It moved along like an old-fashioned noir thriller.  I was surprised at this turn and greatly enjoyed the change of pace.

Books like this do a great job of reminding us of the history that clings to a geographic location.  It also reminds us of the way sins cling to historical timelines, and how easily our mistakes can effect many generations.  But what it does most for me is reminding me that we are not alone in the place we call home.  So many others have come before us, and so many will come after us.  We have an appointed time while we are here to make a contribution to the small slice of the world in which we live.  When it is over, there is so much more that will continue to happen.  We are often too arrogant a people to understand this.

While I would recommend reading Paris: The Novel, I am well aware that it is not for everyone.  The story is long, and builds slowly.  However, if you commit to the time necessary to read it, you'll find the book ends quite satisfactorily.  You'll have learned much about Paris and the French people.  You also might find that you're curious about New York and London.  I haven't read those yet, but I am adding them to my list.

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree! I love everything about that book. I'm on page 600, I started reading it last April after I visited Paris. Now I feel like a Paris Guru and it was magical to read about places I visited and can't wait to visit the Luxur at Place de Concorde and Foutainbleu. :) yes it's taken me a year, due to job schedule but totally worth it and I love visiting Paris everytime I open the book! For over a year I've been telling my boyfriend and friends about the stories in the book as if I've been watching a series on Netflix. It's amazing!