Edward Rutherfurd is best known for his sweeping intergenerational epics. At 832 pages, his latest novel Paris certainly requires the character list and family tree at the beginning to help the reader keep the names straight. The story shifts as well among time periods — we move from the building of the Eiffel Tower to a revolutionary group years later then to a point earlier in Paris history and back again. Rutherfurd’s story is sweeping and historical, a grand narrative about a city as seen through the eyes of its characters.
The power of Rutherfurd’s storytelling, however, lies not in the grandness of its scope but rather in the personal nature of its moments. When I met Rutherfurd at a Random House Canada blogger event, he gave us a brief teaser to the novel that reminded me of a soap opera. From my recap of the event:
A woman falls in love with a Frenchman, except circumstances force them apart, so she settles for an Englishman (“always a poor second,” he quipped). Then years later, she returns to Paris and sees the Frenchman again at a party, except while she has aged, he has not, and of course, it turns out, that’s the Frenchman’s son, who happens to be a friend of Hemingway. (“Sorry,” he said. “You know I have to put things like that in.”) She falls in love with this young man, but her daughter does as well. (Original Post)
That description intrigued me — I expected to feel bad for the daughter, as well as for the Frenchman’s son, who after all might have had a fairly peaceful romance if not for the mother’s clinging on to her past. And indeed when this part of the story came up in Paris, I remembered Rutherfurd’s speech and my prediction. I did feel bad for the parties involved, I was also relieved that Hemingway’s part turned out to be more peripheral than I feared (some authors can’t resist the temptation to reference historical figures liberally).
More than anything however, I was surprised at how small a part this thread is in the overall story. Prior to the intergenerational love triangle, and at times interspersed with these scenes, I’ve read the mother’s own story of lost love. That actually turned out to be my favourite subplot in the entire novel — I was so caught up in the story I almost forgot her romance was doomed to fail, or more likely, I wanted to believe I could somehow change what Rutherfurd had written. I wanted her romance with the Frenchman to succeed. The story of a young girl falling in love with a more sophisticated man who saw her only as a child is such a classic trope, and I love the delicate touch with which Rutherfurd treated this storyline.
It’s easy for subplots to get lost in such a sweeping epic, and certainly, some of them barely interested me at all. At the same time, however, the subplots that do catch each reader’s eye stand out all the more for it. Rutherfurd’s story of Paris reads like a carefully curated history — bits of personal stories the author chooses from countless others and stitches together. It’s a work of fiction, but intertwined with so much historical detail that it feels like part of history. And just like Rutherfurd chooses which figures to focus on, so do we readers get to choose which plot threads strike a chord within us. Rutherfurd may be writing his personal history of Paris, but we in turn get to read our own personal version of his history.
Paris is a book in which to lose oneself. As with any historical epic, some coincidences stretch credibility, but Rutherfurd’s writing nevertheless pulls you in. From romance and relationships to revenge and revolution, Rutherfurd’s Paris is a beautifully crafted intergenerational, multi-family epic. With so many characters and so many plot threads, it’s hard to imagine this book feeling intimate. And yet Rutherfurd’s skill makes it so.
Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.