No, I don’t mean the city, though it is a fantastic place. Five stars, no question.
I’m talking about a novel. I love historical fiction. As someone who has a degree in both English and History, what, truly, could be better? Fictional characters living through historical events, historical characters portrayed on a fictional platform, historical fiction about historical figures living their historical lives, of them seeking to tell a tale is exactly what I’m here for.
My favorite thing about history is that it’s one, huge, enormous, intricate and delicate story, made up of millions of characters and events, all connected to each other. Everything in history is connected. EVERYTHING.
Which is why Paris by Edward Rutherfurd is a book I can say I really loved.
The history of Paris is told through generations of several different fictional families, starting at the origin of the city and taking us from the 1100s to 1960s Paris. The nobel de Cygnes, the vengeful Le Sourds, the Protestant Renards, the successful merchants Blanchards, the working class Glascons, and the Jewish Jacobs. Note: don’t study the family tree that precedes the story if you don’t want to be spoiled.
Through this novel we meet Sun King Louis XIV, Coco Chanel, Earnest Hemingway, Claude Monet, Henry of Navarre. We meet Catholic supremacy, ardent antisemitism, corrupt power, Parisian brothels, revolution and two world wars.
The way Rutherfurd wrote his characters living through these various points in history, making choices that would affect the history of their families for generations to come, was what made the book so engaging. The book is framed around the the main characters in the 19th and 20th centuries, interspersed with chapters, or “flashbacks,” of their preceding relatives who got them to where they were.
My expectations going into this book were somewhat low. For no real reason, I had been afraid it might be boring. Now, having now devoured all 800 pages in less than a week, I can honestly say that not a single one of them bored me, which is truly incredible for such a long book. As an avid historical fiction reader, this book was almost like a dream come true.
Each character was fantastically developed, each story line thorough and interesting. Rutherfurd truly has the gift of storytelling, and mixing it so thoroughly with history is truly a feat. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
For someone who may not be a history lover- sometimes the characters tend to speak like history teachers. Sometimes pages go on explaining the history of a certain era. I love that, and never quite minded the dialogue. Could it have been been a little less history dense? Perhaps. Would I want it to be? Nope.
Apart from that my review so far is glowing, I know. However there is one thing that prevents me from giving it the full five stars (4 1/2, I give it), and that’s Rutherford’s portrayal of World War II. Perhaps it’s because it’s a part of history I’ve read a lot about, but I was really looking forward for when the book would reach that part in history, to see how the characters would face it. At that point the book had turned out to be so good and it had risen my hopes spectacularly.
The reason I was so disappointed in his portrayal of World War II? It just wasn’t gritty enough. It wasn’t scary enough. I didn’t have a sense that the characters felt that were in as much danger as they truly would have been. The Germans seemed rather soft. No one starved, and Paris didn’t seem war torn and bedraggled by Nazi preoccupation. Characters in “the resistance” didn’t seem to take into account that what they were doing might have deadly or torturous consequences for their families. It felt like Rutherfurd had chosen to glaze over these aspects of World War II, because surely someone so deeply versed in history couldn’t not know World War conditions, and it really disappointed me.
Still, however, it was a page turner. Still I needed to know what would happen, and overall the book was hugely satisfying, and the best book I’ve read this year so far.
Bonus: favorite characters (spoilers!)
Favorite characters is one of my favorite parts of a book discussion. For Paris, it’s the Gascon slum brothers, Thomas and Luc. If you have seen my previous post, a short story about a boy who labors on the Eiffel Tower, it’s very inspired Rutherfurd’s Thomas Gascon.
We meet a huge cast of characters throughout this book, but my favorite of them all is the proud, loyal, good, and reckless Thomas Gascon. The first portion of the book devotes several chapters to him, his pride of working on the Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower and his bumpy romance with the girl he spots while he’s hanging above Victor Hugo’s funeral. Through Thomas, we see the labor of late 19th century Paris. I love 19th century stuff, and I found the Eiffel Tower bits to be particularly interesting (leading me on an extensive google search of its history afterward).
Thomas and Luc’s story begins with young Thomas defending his little brother Luc from the Dalou boys, who stole his balloon and grew angry at Luc when he threw a bottle at them and it popped. Thomas beats up the older brother, Bertrand, and they don’t bother Luc again.
Now Luc, he isa very interesting character. He was, to put some Harry Potter input in, the definition of a Slytherin. Whether he did good, or bad, he did it fully, thoroughly, and cunningly, as long as he did it in his own self interest. I liked Luc a lot, at first. He seemed sympathetic, helpful, light- though the point of view of Thomas.
“I think that if you asked, Edith would go out with you again.”
Thomas looked at him thoughtfully.
“Why are you encouraging me to do that,” he asked Luc, “when you think she doesn’t like you?”
“Because I think you are unhappy without her.”
Thomas gazed at his brother fondly. Then he gently punched his arm.
“You’re a good fellow, you know,” he said.
“Me?” Luc considered, then shook his head. “Not really.”
“I think you are.”
“No, I’m not a good man, Thomas. In fact,” he paused for a moment, “I don’t even want to be.”
Thomas held up his glass of wine and looked over it.
“I don’t understand you, little brother.”
“I know,” said Luc. “Will you see Edith again?”
Then the story shifts away from Thomas, and we see Luc as a young waiter in the Moulin Rouge when saves Roland de Cygne from getting shot by Jacques le Sourd. A heroic act, perhaps- if he didn’t save Roland in favor of twisting the situation in a way that would most benefit himself.
Then Thomas finds the dead girl in his rug.
Thomas measured the carpet with his eye. He wondered how much too big it was. It suddenly occurred to him that if there was a spare strip, he might take it for the passage in their lodgings. Taking out his knife, he cut the string that was tied around the carpet, and began to unroll it.
Then he stepped back, and stared in horror.
Luc gazed at him sadly.
“Why did you do that?” he said.
Thomas did not answer.
“I was only gone for a moment.” Luc sighed. “I never meant you to see. I didn’t want you to know.”
This moment of broken trust between Thomas and Luc was one of my favorite parts in the book. Here, Thomas’ solid and faithful opinion of his brother is destroyed, and he finally realizes why his wife has never liked him. Should he turn Luc in? he wonders. But Luc is his brother, and in the end, he remains faithful to his brother. Protective and keeping him out of trouble.
However, and what I love most, is that Thomas remains the only person in the world that Luc trusts, the only person Luc does not want to compromise when starts his dealings with a German officer during World War II, while Thomas joins the resistance. Thomas, he knows, is the only person who will always protect him.
The relationship between Thomas and Luc was my favorite in the book, and the way their relationship ended was perfect. When Thomas realizes what Luc has done with the Nazis, he knows he must act. In the end, Thomas saves Luc one last time from the trouble he’s gotten himself into.
“You needn’t have worried, you know,” Thomas said quietly, “I’d never have let them hurt you.”
“I love you, little brother.”
Luck never saw the big Welrod with its silencer in his brother’s hand. Thomas fired once. The shot went straight into Luc’s heart.
As much as he knew Luc staying alive was intensely dangerous to the Nazi resistance, he saved Luc one last time, and never let anyone hurt him.
Another ironic twist I love is that Thomas befriends the Dalou boys in the resistance against the Nazis. When they threatened Luc, he had no choice but to be against them, but when they had a cause to fight together against a bigger evil, there wasn’t much question that they should fight together. Thomas recognized that there was never any greater good for Luc. He didn’t care what happened to the resistance, as long as he was well rewarded by the Nazis. His only saving grace was that he cared about Thomas.
“You were trying to save me,” Thomas continued. “You tried to save your brother, I know it.” He put his arm around Luc. “Do you remember when I fought Bertrand Dalou after they took your balloon?” He held his brother closer. “It’s always just been you and me. And now you tried to save my life. Do you know what that means to me?”
“You’re my brother,” said Luc.
“But you need to tell me one thing. How did you know it was a trap? Who’s your contact? Is it one person, or are there many? I need to know so I can protect you.”
And Thomas finds out the truth, and keeps his promise. In the end, loyalty and love for their brother saved them both.
Which concludes why I love Thomas and his story line with Luc. I didn’t quite mean for that to turn into a book report, but a good discussion of literature never hurt anyone, right?
Read Paris. If you like history and are looking for a good story, don’t pass this up. It may be long, but by the end 800 pages might not seem like enough.
And I’m definitely going to read the rest of his books about London and Ireland and New York and Russia and England 😀