Perspectives On Paris

Book review: A Paris All Your Own, edited by Eleanor Brown

“My time in Paris was like no one else’s ever.”

“In the end, I think Paris kept us married for an extra five years.”

“I should probably write an article for a women’s magazine about this: ‘Lose Weight While Eating Your Feelings in Paris!'”

A Paris All Your Own is a collection of impressionistic essays by bestselling women’s fiction authors about their experiences, good and bad, in the City of Light. All of the authors have written books connected to Paris, their stories ranging from romance to history to crime, each centered around the city.

But their impressions of the legendary, storied city diverge from there, as they all relate what the city meant to them and what they took away from their time and work there. Some had connections to romantic love lost or found, others to familial relationships, recalling family trips or meaningful mother-daughter moments. Editor Eleanor Brown employs a writerly angle as her focus in collecting the tales of women who have crafted bestselling fiction from the city and who can share their inspiration.

Each essay ends with some city picks from the writer, like must-dos, what’s skippable or overrated, beloved Paris songs, and favorite/least favorite Paris moments. It’s a bit too cutesy for my taste, but works for the light travelogue aspect.

I was skeptical reading the title. I wondered why it mattered that the writers were bestselling. I didn’t actually know any of them or their work, but this qualifier was disappointing and cheapened the concept for me somewhat. It felt like the idea that commercially successful authors are more worth hearing from.

And, Brown explains in her introduction that she asked for “very personal stories, so larger questions – of race, of politics, of religion – are largely absent.” Well, that’s a shame, and I think it has more to do with the women themselves, who she admits are largely white and heterosexual. This lack of diversity is disappointing, no way around it. But I do understand her reasoning in not tackling these social issues, huge and massively important as they are.

Paris is a muse city, it’s been prolifically written about, and as we see in these essays alone, it inspires everyone differently. Covering the hot button topics, especially of recent years, would make a very different volume, but one I’d like to read. This book is lovely and wistful and sentimental and all the things good travel writing can be, but some pieces are too superficial, only skimming the surface of an emotional and experiential reservoir.

And I still think something speaking to a different kind of experience should’ve been included, because the collection does have a somewhat elitist feel – it’s definitely been written by white women of at least some affluence, education, disposable time and income.

But she asked the women to tell the stories behind their fictional stories, their truthful answers about what they thought and felt in and about the city, what it really meant to them and their work. And that’s what we have, and it’s absolutely lovely in its own way, even if it could’ve been something deeper.

Brown had an interesting reason for her own Parisian research: she’d learned that her grandmother had lived for a time in Paris in her youth, and it happened to be during the dizzying Jazz Age 1920s, when Paris overflowed with writers, poets, musicians, artists, and dancers in a Bohemian paradise.

My favorite essay was Maggie Shipstead’s, “Paris Alone”, exploring the value of solitude and how she embraced it during her residency at an artist’s complex in the Marais. Maybe it spoke to me because I can say from experience that Paris is both an excellent and a sad place to live alone, somehow. It’s an incomparable feeling to wander the streets and soak it all in, exploring without any agenda or obligation, but at the same time it’s a city of lovers and excitement and shared experience. There’s something complicated about being alone there, even when working.

They all seem to have in common walking; the quiet, solitary time of observation spent wandering unfamiliar streets. Paris is perfect for that. And all that walking and alone time, often the separation through language, leads to soul-searching and self-actualization. Those might have been my favorite moments throughout the collection. Paris is the lens through which these women learn about themselves. Megan Crane writes in “French for Intrepid”:

“The trouble with running away, it would not occur to me for years, was that no matter what place or which people I left behind in a cloud of dust when I decided it was time to go, I took me right along…”

And this wise warning from Therese Ann Fowler after tracing the footsteps of the troubled Zelda Fitzgerald: “But the light says, consider, too, what – or who – you’re bringing with you. Consider what all of that weighs. Expectation can be impossibly heavy, depending.” 

This book was sentimental for me, almost painfully so, as Paris was my first ever home away from home, the first place I lived abroad on work assignments while still living in New York. It made me long for that time so much, and I suspect that anyone else who has lived, worked, and loved in the city will feel the same way.

Brown writes of her experience not quite loving Paris during the time she spent there researching her book.

“…Paris, for all the wonder it contains, is just a city. It has its pretty parts and its grimy parts, its rude citizens and its friendly ones, its nice museums and its tourist traps. It felt, to me, more similar to any other big city than different. So if it is just another city, why are we obsessed with it?”

I think the answer is what it allows us to learn about ourselves, our relationships, and our place in the world, and as a fabled, historic site of both bloody revolutions and beautiful fairy tales, it’s helped many to figure those tough questions out.

A quick and light read, the perfect appetizer for an upcoming Parisian visit, or for someone already in love with the city and happy to reminisce. Great summer vacation reading.

A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light
edited by Eleanor Brown

published July 4, 2017 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (Penguin Publishing Group)

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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