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I became acquainted with author K.S.R. (Karen) Burns several years ago when I moved to the Seattle area and was looking for a new writing critique group. Although we never wound up working together on our writing projects, our paths have continued to cross. Her latest novel is set in Paris, where she lived for three years, and she’s offered up these fabulous books set in La Ville Lumière.
Are you a Paris-aholic? If so, you’re in luck. Literally hundreds of books are set there. Novels, memoirs, historical works—the world’s most popular destination for tourists also seems to be the most popular setting for authors. Here are just a few of my favorites:
Is Paris Burning? by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins
A retelling of World War II Paris that you won’t believe is non-fiction. It reads like a thriller! Even more remarkable is that, though you know the ending (Paris is of course never destroyed by the Nazis), you stay on the edge of your seat throughout the whole book. Wonderfully well written, full of fascinating historical detail, perfect for people who love reliving the great stories of history.
Here’s what the Los Angeles Times said when this book first came out: “The most readable book of the year. . .it is a measure of the accomplishment, that knowing the end of the story as all of us do, we are still so immersed that the mounting action is as powerful as it must have been to the participants. We are directly aware of the tension, suspense, and irony of the experience.”
What Karen says: I read this book when it first came out (1991) and it has stuck in my mind ever since. In fact, I think I need to read it again sometime soon. It’s so rich and fascinating.
A quote from the book: “He was never late. Each evening when the German arrived with his old Mauser, his frayed leather binocular case and his dinner pail, the inhabitants of the village of May-en-Multien knew it was six o’clock. As he walked across the cobbled town square, the first notes of the evening Angelus invariably rang out from the Romanesque belfry of the little twelfth-century church of Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption looking down on May-en-Multien’s gray slate roofs from its perch on a ridge over the River Ourcq, 37 miles northeast of Paris.”
Murder in the Marais by Cara Black
Okay, this is kind of cheating. Cara Black has written 17 books in her “Murder in…..” series (each book is set in a different quartier of Paris) and I would recommend them all. The plots are standard murder-mystery fare but the settings are lovingly and accurately rendered. Black’s intrepid sleuth, Aimée Leduc, really knows her way around Paris. Murder in the Marais is the first one—start here and keep reading!
Publishers Weekly says: “Black knows Paris well, and in her first-rate debut she deftly combines fascinating anecdotes from the city’s war years with classic images of the City of Light.”
Karen says: I read this book while in Paris a few years back and it made me want to have my own TinTin wristwatch (style maven Aimée Leduc wears one). But though my husband and I looked everywhere, we never found a TinTin watch, or even an Asterix one. Will have to try again next time! These books are fun and make great airplane reads.
A quote from the book: “Aimée Leduc felt his presence before she saw him. As if ghosts floated in his wake in the once elegant hall. She paused, pulling her black leather jacket closer against the Parisian winter morning slicing through her building, and reached for her keys. The man emerged from the shadows by her frosted paned office door. A baby’s cry wafted up from the floor below, then the concierge’s door slammed. ‘Mademoiselle, I need your help,’ he said.”
Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod
The “young woman who dumps her life and moves to Paris” memoir is common enough to almost form its own genre. Paris Letters is one of the best of these. MacLeod stages her escape to Paris with great care and, when she gets there, finds an extremely original way to survive. Plus the book is illustrated with MacLeod’s own watercolors! Truly a lovely book. Its sequel, A Paris Year, is just out this month.
Kirkus Reviews says: “Inspiration for others longing for adventure. . .A romantic romp from Santa Monica to Paris with loads of advice on how to live minimally and take risks in life and love.”
Karen says: A surprising element of this book is the detailed information on how MacLeod made her Paris adventure financially possible. It’s well worth reading for that alone. I also was in awe of how daring she was—she met her Frenchman and moved in with him in pretty short order, even before she really spoke much French. But they must have figured out a way to communicate because now they are married and have a baby!
A quote from the book: “Before I arrived in Paris, I was living in California, working as a copywriter in an advertising agency. I was thirty-four, single, lonely, feeling unfulfilled by my job, and on the brink of burnout. Something had to change.”
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
Another moving-to-Paris memoir, but this one is from a completely different angle. Gopnik and family are sent to France on assignment by The New Yorker magazine. Nice work if you can get it. But Gopnik is a beautiful prose stylist, and his Paris is not the Paris you (or I) are likely to get a glimpse of any other way so I say go for it. Excellent writing. Excellent reading.
John Updike says: “Adam Gopnik’s avid intelligence and nimble pen found subjects to love in Paris and in the growth of his small American family there. A conscientious, scrupulously savvy American husband and father meets contemporary France, and fireworks result, lighting up not just the Eiffel Tower.”
Karen says: This is a nice book to dip in and out of. Some of the specific information is out of date, as the content was written in the late nineties, but the anecdotes about raising small children in Paris will stay with you for a long time.
A quote from the book: “There are two kinds of travelers. There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see and sees it, and the kind who has an image in his head and goes out to accomplish it. The first visitor has an easier time, but I think the second visitor sees more. He is constantly comparing what he sees to what he wants, so he sees with his mind, and maybe even with his heart, or tries to.”
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
When I was living in Paris a friend came to visit for two weeks. Midway through her stay, as we were sitting in a sidewalk café, she looked around and said to me, “This city is so beautiful, but where do the people live?” A California girl, she assumed there must be a “residential area” somewhere, perhaps with houses and little yards. I laughed, and answered, “They live in these tall buildings you see all around you.” This amazing novel tells a story of life inside one of those buildings.
The Washington Post says: “. . .a very French novel: tender and satirical in its overall tone, yet most absorbing because of its reflections on the nature of beauty and art, the meaning of life and death.”
Karen says: Some of the characters may seem fantastical, even unrealistic, but the everyday details that make up this book give you that feeling you get when you read somebody else’s mail, or someone’s diary. (Not that I’ve done these things!) I loved the meditations on class, human longing, and the consoling power of aesthetics and art. It’s the kind of book meant to be read more than once.
A quote from the book: “My name is Renée. I am fifty-four years old. For twenty-seven years I have been the concierge at number 7, rue de Grenelle, a fine hôtel particulier with a courtyard and private gardens, divided into eight luxury apartments, all of which are inhabited, all of which are immense. I am a widow, I am short ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth.”
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
True, this novel tells the (ultimately sad) story of Ernest Hemingway’s marriage to his first wife, Hadley—starting with their courtship in Chicago—and thus is set only partly in Paris. But it gives a great feel for Jazz Age Paris and is a wonderful companion piece to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which I also recommend. (Even to people who don’t like Hemingway, and I realize they are legion.)
Entertainment Weekly says: “By making the ordinary come to life, McLain has written a beautiful portrait of being in Paris in the glittering 1920s—as a wife and as one’s own woman.”
Karen says: Generally I’m not a fan of the fictionalization of real-life people—you’re constantly wondering what’s “real” and what’s not. But this book is most pleasurable and you get the feeling that what is important is real and what is not important is, well, not important. I was happy to see all the high (and low) points of Hemingway’s Paris rendered from this somewhat unexpected point of view.
A quote from the book: “The song ended and we parted to catch our breath. I moved to one side of Kenley’s long living room while Ernest was quickly swallowed up by admirers—women, naturally. They seemed awfully young and sure of themselves with their bobbed hair and brightly rouged cheeks. I was closer to a Victorian holdout than to a flapper.”
My Life in France by Julia Child
Also not totally set in Paris but this is Julia Child, people! You will adore her charming tale of food, love, marriage, second chances, and enduring friendship. Julia’s innate joie de vivre infects every page of this book. In fact, while it’s not the purpose of the book, she offers an excellent example of a life well lived. Perfect to pick up when you’re feeling that old existential angst and more inspiring, in its way, than many of those “self-help” books you see everywhere. It’s delightful, because its subject is delightful.
The San Francisco Chronicle says: “Captivating. . .Her marvelously distinctive voice is present on every page.”
Karen says: Julia’s determination is formidable, and enviable. She didn’t speak French when she first arrived in France. She encountered much rejection (from cooking schools, publishers) but overcame it all. With gusto. You don’t have to care about France, or cooking, to enjoy this book. It’s a breath of fresh air, and satisfying in the way a life well lived is satisfying.
A quote from the book: “As a girl I had zero interest in the stove. I’ve always had a healthy appetite, especially for the wonderful meat and the fresh produce of California, but I was never encouraged to cook and just didn’t see the point in it.”
The Complete Claudine by Sidonie Colette
If you’ve never tried anything by Colette, you really should. She’s funny and clever. Plus, reading novels written a century ago reminds us how very little human nature has changed over the years—nowadays, this can be extremely reassuring. Colette’s writing is fluid, genuine, and simple. She was a natural. (She had to be. Her husband, Willy, was said to have locked in her room every day until she produced a certain number of words.)
Writing about Colette, the New York Times says: “This most French of all French writers tells us how love sometimes binds and keeps a woman from breathing freely or how it may shape and support her and help her to be beautiful. . .One thinks of her as the female voice of Paris.”
Karen says: Confession time again: Not all of these books (it’s a set of four) are set in Paris. But the Claudine books were the first works of Colette I’d read and I still think they are the most engaging. They are a bit shocking, but in a very fun and almost innocent way. Colette wrote fifty books in all, including Gigi, which was adapted for the classic 1958 film starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier.
A quote from the book: “My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.”
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The Paris Effect was K.S.R. Burns’s first novel. Set in Paris (mais oui!), it’s the story of ten eventful days in the life of Amy Brodie, a dieting-obsessed twenty-something woman who tries to escape food and her future by taking a secret trip to Paris. Karen is also the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use. For more information, visit her website at www.ksrburns.com.