In the past few months I’ve been to Paris, New York, Luxembourg, the English countryside, Vienna, Chicago and even Kansas City—and to paraphrase ‘Good Will Hunting’, I managed it all for a few dollars in library fines. I’ve been on a reading winning streak, devouring books set in far-flung locales by writers who manage to bring each place into vivid detail.
Laura Moriarty’s ‘The Chaperone’ took me on a train ride from Kansas City to New York City with the soon-to-be famous silent film star Louise Brooks and her chaperone, Cora Carlisle. The book delves deeply into the rapidly changing and contradictory social mores of the 1920’s as viewed by the 40-something Cora Carlisle and her already cynical and world weary 15-year-old charge. The first two-thirds of the book is a captivating portrait of a specific time and place, namely New York City during a muggy few weeks in 1922. Louise barely tolerates Cora and Cora can’t understand Louise. Cora wants to understand, however, not only Louise but herself, and whether she’s initially conscious of it or not she’s ready to change. It doesn’t take long for her to challenge her own convictions and admit suppressed hopes and desires.
The pace shifts during the last third of the novel, alternately skipping ahead years and even decades before slowing down for a scene or two. It’s an attempt, I think, at a comprehensive exploration of the momentous changes in civil rights and issues of sexuality over the second half of the 20th century. But it’s a bit disconcerting stepping away from vividly drawn characters and settings to briefly rendered scenes, and the characters threaten to become ‘points’ to be made rather than people. Having often considered how much change someone born in the early 20th century would have seen during their lifetime, however, I understand Laura Moriarty’s desire to include everything but the kitchen sink.
Up next: a thriller in Luxembourg, an affair in Paris, and a war in England.
There have been countless films made to propagate a mythical version of Paris, and I enjoy many of them. Passing a couple of hours in the picture-perfect Paris of ‘An American in Paris’, ‘Gigi’, ‘Funny Face’, and the more recent ‘Amelie’ and ‘Midnight in Paris’ is like taking a mini-vacation from reality. But when I want an escape to the real Paris, the one I’ve actually visited, I watch films whose naturalistic representations of the city stir up memories and fill me with an ache to return.
In the movies I’ve included below, Paris is lovingly filmed but the depictions of the city are not, for the most part, overly romantic.
1) Le père de mes enfants / The father of my children: The beginning credits roll over scenes of Paris on a sunny, promising afternoon. We see the familiar v-shaped intersections, smart leafy boulevards and busy streets where motorbikes compete with buses for space, tourists pausing to snap pictures and Parisians dining on a cafe terrace. This is the Paris I recognize: lovely and busy and languid all at once. The end credits are even better. While the opening scenes are stationary frames of movement in the lively city, at the end we are the ones moving, quickly, past pedestrians and monuments before entering the flow of traffic along the Seine. The city recedes little by little as Doris Day sings ‘Que sera sera’, injecting a bit of hope into the general melancholy of our departure. The movie in-between is pretty great, too.
2) Paris: This film is a Valentine to Paris and Parisians alike. As with many a film that juggles a large cast of characters and multiple storylines, some of the characters and some of the storylines are inevitably less interesting than others. ‘Paris’ is ambitious in its scope and a bit melodramatic for my taste, but I’d watch Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris in just about anything.
I’m about two-thirds of the way through ‘Juliet’ by Anne Fortier, a retelling of the classic story of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The novel alternates between the 1300’s and the present day, telling parallel stories that manage to be equally intriguing. I’ve been savoring the evocative descriptions of Italy, and taking my time negotiating the twists and turns of the story. Sure, there a few cliches (like an evil twin whose insensitivity seems to know no bounds, and a handsome, mysterious Italian whose initial suspicion and hostility towards our faithful narrator are surely a ruse), but the characters are distinct and finely drawn.
In this ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Shakespeare’s Verona is replaced by the medieval city of Siena. Why Siena? Perhaps because, in keeping with the theme of ‘divided houses’, the author can take advantage of Siena’s own divided loyalties: it is a city broken up into contrade, which are distinct neighborhood districts. Each contrada is represented by a symbol, like a tortoise, caterpillar or owl, and is filled with residents who are fiercely loyal to their territory. This loyalty is most evident during the palio, the horse race for which Siena is famous. The palio plays a key role in ‘Juliet’, as three powerful Sienese families send their sons to compete; at stake are not only neighborhood and family honor, but the fate of a certain young woman.
But enough about discord and rivalry. There’s a great love story here as well, with clever parallels between the past and present, and I’m enjoying the trip to Siena, courtesy of a library card and skilled author.
This film just took me back to India, so much so that as we drove home from the theater I experienced the same impression of orderliness and calm that I did when we returned from the actual India.
The characters in the film made some of the usual observations about how India is an assault on the senses, which it is; like my mother pointed out, though, it’s a colorful assault. The characters also made choices about how they would respond to the chaos, noise, and unpredictability in India. One of them entrenched herself, holding out hope that fortunes would change and she’d be on a plane back to England. Her husband, meanwhile, embraced all that India (or at least Jaipur) had to offer. Another character (played by the always remarkable Judi Dench) compared immersion into India as a wave: if you fight it, you’ll struggle and perhaps drown; it’s best to let it carry you. You might just end up someplace wonderful.
Europe - What a cool concept: take an old Frommer’s guidebook (a 1963 edition) of ‘Europe on $5 a day’ and see what happens when you rely on it for a journey across Europe today. I was born too late to travel around Europe on anything less than $50 a day, and that was pushing it. But author Doug Mack gave it a try, and the result is what promises to be an amusing read, Europe on 5 wrong turns a day: one man, eight countries, one vintage travel guide. Check out this interview with the author, and this short essay on what $5 currently buys you in a few top European cities, both featured on World Hum.
Paris, France - Sticking with Europe, how many people travel there only to return wishing they could someday call it home? There are loads of memoirs by people who either had that dream and made it a reality, or else ended up there by chance, love, or a job transfer. Rosecrans Baldwin, author of the new memoir Paris, I love you but you’re bringing me down, is a lover of Paris who ended up living there by way of a job opportunity. Based on this excerpt in GQ magazine, Baldwin has written a humorous, honest account of his time in Paris, which will certainly shatter the illusions of some readers, while passages like the following will entice others to book a plane ticket tout de suite:
“But what a marvelous evening to be outside in Paris! Never-ending light. The buzz of apéritifs. Cafés full of disheveled girls smoking cigarettes and their boyfriends fluffing their hair once they’d set down their helmets.”
Do writers see the world through the lens of a potential story? Do they see other people through the lens of a potential character, perhaps guessing at the inner lives of their fellow passengers while riding a train? Would a writer in a first class train carriage to Milan, for example, observe a young couple sitting across the way and speculate about the the nature of their relationship, going so far as to imagine how they might have met and arguments they might have had? If that writer is anything like the narrator of William Trevor’s novel ‘My house in Umbria’, this is just what they’d do.
The narrator of ‘My house in Umbria’, a former madam, now writer and hostess of a not-quite-b&b, not-quite-pensione in the countryside near Siena, calls herself Mrs. Delahunty but, as she tells us early on, that’s just one of many names she’s gone by. She’s honest, therefore, about her dishonesty. Early on, Mrs. Delahunty, or Emily (apparently her real name), is the victim of a likely terrorist bombing in a first class train carriage. As she lies in the hospital, she recalls the details of the bombing along with bits and pieces of other significant moments in her life. From this jumbled mess we quickly identify that despite the now-peaceful, even privileged life Emily leads, she has emerged from the darkness of exploitation and abuse. And if her preoccupation with the past is anything to go by, she hasn’t truly escaped.