The Light of Paris

9780399158919_p0_v3_s192x300  Unhappy with your life decisions?  Feeling unloved?  Want a change?  Paris is the answer, according to Eleanor Brown in her second novel – The Light of Paris.  With alternate chapters telling the story of Madeleine, a frustrated artist with frizzy hair, and Margie, her grandmother who is sent on the world tour to escape being an old maid at twenty-four, Brown focuses on the life changing decisions of both.  Separated by a generation, both face the consequences of choosing – is it better to be safe and do what is expected or follow the riskier path to your own bliss?  Both women are determined to escape the low expectations of family and friends.

Brown uses old letters to reveal Margie’s secrets from the nineteen twenties when she spends three months in Paris, after refusing her parents’s choice for her husband.  Of course she finds romance – this is Paris – and her life neatly reverts to type when she gets pregnant.  But during those glorious months when Margie finds herself, Brown uses vivid  descriptions of the city and the people who used Paris as their muse to counter the triteness of the story line.  Margie discovers Paris in one of the best times to be there.

As she is reading her grandmother’s letters, Madeleine is struggling with her own demons.  After years in an unhappy marriage with a controlling husband (he tells her she’s fat and won’t let her eat chocolate – grounds for divorce right there), she returns to her childhood home just as her mother has decided to sell it.  Making peace with memories of her miserable youth lead her to an epiphany – life is too short to waste trying to be something you are not.

Without the quick wit and Shakespearean quotes of her first novel, The Weird Sisters, this book falls a little short.  But with heady romance and life altering role modeling, The Light in Paris delivers a quick easy read.  It is Paris, after all – too bad we can’t all solve our problems by running off to be there.

Review of The Weird Sisters

 

 

The Black Notebook

9780544779822_p0_v3_s192x300 French writer Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel prize for Literature, creates a film noir atmosphere in The Black Notebook.  Obscure scribblings in a writer’s notebook  trigger scenes from the seedier side of Paris, and Modiano  keeps the reader off balance by jumping from past to present to dream sequences.  Despite its short length, The Black Notebook is complicated and intriguing.

The story of The Black Notebook revolves around the narrator’s attempt to discover what became of Dannie, a mysterious woman he met in Paris nearly half a century earlier.  When he met Dannie, Jean called himself a “spectator,” noting down everything in his black notebook, which he uses to recall their time together years earlier.

Dannie associates with the “Montparnasse gang,” a shady group of criminals who help her get a place to live and provide her with false identity papers. What she does in return is left unsaid. Although a police detective, Langlais, warns Jean to beware of the gang and exposes Dannie’s many aliases, Jean continues to help Dannie with her strange requests and yearns to run away with her – despite her confession of having killed a man.  Dannie disappears and Jean grows into a famous author, but years later, he bumps into the police inspector who reveals the answers to most of his unanswered questions.

Modiano’s short book reads like a meditation on memory – what we remember and how convoluted it becomes over the years.  The mystery of Dannie is never really solved, and the author ends with more unsettling questions.

The Black Notebook may be a book for our times with its confusion, uncertainty, and elusive promises.  In the end, Jean advises – “…don’t fret about it…”

Happy People Read and Drink Coffee

9781602862845_p0_v2_s192x300   Knowing my proclivity for both coffee and reading, a friend recommended Agnes Martin-Lugand’s Happy People Read and Drink Coffee.  I expected a book of affirmation, but the title is the name of a literary cafe in Paris and the story, a delightful romance set in Ireland.

Diane is a young French woman trying to cope with the death of her husband and five year old daughter. A year after their death, she rents a cottage by the sea in Ireland, with an irresistibly attractive Irish photographer as a neighbor.

I read the book in an afternoon, thinking it would end like the Hallmark romance it resembled, but the author surprised me – not at all the happily-ever-after I’d expected but a realistically satisfying one.  If I had noted that Martin-Lugand’s day job is as a clinical psychologist, I might have guessed.

Nevertheless, hope floats for romantics – Martin-Lugand cleverly added the first chapter of the sequel coming in 2017 – Don’t Worry, Life Is Easy – to the back of Happy People Read and Drink Coffee.  

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

9780778319337_p0_v3_s192x300  A sweet distraction – The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick follows the quirky story of a widower who finds a charm bracelet hidden in a boot in his dead wife’s belongings.  Following the clues of each charm from an Indian elephant with a precious emerald, to a tiger from a nature preserve in Bath, and the thimble from a Parisian boutique, Arthur discovers more about his wife’s life than he had known.

Although both the language and the plot are contrived, you will find yourself cheering stodgy old Arthur (although he is only 69) as his odyssey takes him on adventures around the world in search of his dead wife’s true nature.  In the end, of course, he finds himself.

If you are a fan of life-changing stories of otherwise uneventful lives – like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – you will enjoy this new addition to the list.

Related Reviews:

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood

9780544635067_p0_v1_s192x300

Have you ever lost some of your “Contacts” as you tried to transfer them from one iPhone to another, as I did?  Would your back-up be the Cloud or an old address book buried in a desk drawer?  In Patrick Modiano’s So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, the lost and found address book becomes the premise for a threatening mystery involving possible murder, blackmail, and a lost past.

Although the story is short, it requires attention to follow the trail, and to decipher the real focus.  The two sinister characters who find the address book and demand information on a name in the book are only vehicles to Daragne’s uncovering a dark childhood secret, but this is not immediately apparent.  The characters fade and disappear as Daragne’s detective-like hunt for clues to incidents evading his memory reappear.

In the first lines of the novel, the real premise is set – a small catalyst (losing an address book) may trigger the path to repressed memories.

“Almost nothing. Like an insect bite that initially strikes you as very slight. At least that is what you tell yourself in a low voice so as to reassure yourself.”

Daragne is telling the story as an older man, a respected and popular novelist – like the author.  As he begins to remember important names and places, he questions his own memory.  How often does memory trick us into a different version than what actually happened?  The story picks up pace, and the evidence pointing to a childhood trauma finally emerges.  The end comes abruptly, with more questions than answers.

Maybe because the novel is translated from the French and is set in Paris, the language has a smoldering aura mixed with the flavor of a film noir.  I  could envision the main character, Jean Daragane, sitting quietly, sipping coffee in an outdoor cafe, as he remembers people and places threatening to upend his life.

Kaiama Glover’s article in the New York Times Book Review section drew me to this small book (155 pages) – a novel promising to reveal the revered author, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. In his summary of the book, Glover notes:

“{the book is} rife with explicit allusions to the real life of Patrick Modiano, as told in his memoir a decade earlier, the narrative {chronicling} the efforts of an isolated and aging novelist to confront an elusive past.”

Although Modiano has a loyal following for his mysteries in France, and has written over thirty books, this author was new to me. So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood is a compelling read – despite the red herrings and McGuffins in the mystery.  Modiano does not follow the formula for mystery – he breaks it – and creates a suspenseful and thoughtful dilemma. Deciphering the possibilities would make for a great book discussion.