Of all the new books being published this year, this is one that I’ve really been looking forward to, having read and enjoyed all seven of Edward Rutherfurd’s previous books – my two personal favourites, Sarum, set in and around the English city of Salisbury, and Russka, which covers almost two thousand years of Russian history; his other two ‘big city’ novels, London and New York (probably the two I’ve enjoyed the least); his two books on the history of Ireland, Dublin and Ireland Awakening; and The Forest, the story of England’s New Forest.
After reading all of those, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from Paris but I was surprised to find that I was wrong. With all of his other novels, Rutherfurd has followed the same format: beginning in the distant past then moving forward chronologically through the centuries, he attempts to tell the story of a city or a country’s entire history by following several families down through the generations. Paris has a very different structure.
In this book we concentrate on one set of characters who are living in Paris during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the era known as the Belle Époque). Most of these characters are introduced in the first few chapters of the book and belong to six families, all of different social classes and political backgrounds. First, there’s the bourgeois Blanchard family – Jules Blanchard, the owner of the Josephine department store, and his three children, Gerard, Marc and Marie. Next, there’s Thomas Gascon, an iron worker, and his charismatic younger brother, Luc. There’s the aristocratic Roland de Cygne and his enemy, the revolutionary Jacques Le Sourd. And finally, a Jewish family, the Jacobs, and the Renards, who are merchants. The personal stories of all of these people and their ancestors are cleverly woven around the events that shaped the history of Paris.
Interspersed with this main storyline are several chapters in which we go further back in time and meet some of the earlier generations of our six families. There’s a chapter telling the story of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, for example, and another set in the city’s Jewish community in the 14th century. However, I was disappointed that some of the earlier periods in France’s history were given very little attention at the expense of the Belle Époque chapters. There was nothing prior to the 13th century so the Romans were completely ignored, Napoleon was barely mentioned at all, and I also couldn’t believe that we were only given one short, thinly plotted chapter on the French Revolution. I can see that choosing to focus more on the 1875-1940 thread of the novel allowed Rutherfurd to develop more complex storylines, but unfortunately his characters are just not strong enough to make this new format work. I still thoroughly enjoyed Paris and don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t; it’s just that I’m sure I would have loved it more if it had followed the same chronological structure as the previous books.
While I don’t have any problems with the factual content of Rutherfurd’s books, they do require you to suspend disbelief. You have to be able to accept that Thomas Gascon works on both the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower and is singled out by Gustave Eiffel from all the other hundreds of workers, that another of our fictional characters spends an evening with Ernest Hemingway and another one models for Coco Chanel, to give just a few examples. Another method he uses is to have the characters conveniently taking sightseeing tours of famous buildings and landmarks, such as the Palace of Versailles or the Père Lachaise cemetery. But although this kind of name-dropping can be annoying in other historical fiction novels, I actually don’t mind it in Rutherfurd’s books and I know he does it because it enables him to show us as many of the city’s famous figures and important events as he possibly can. Sometimes, though, it’s the smaller details and snippets of information that I enjoy the most – a description of a beautiful mille-fleur tapestry or a mention of the famous book shop, Shakespeare and Company.
I know these aren’t the sort of books that would appeal to everyone, though, as you do need to be genuinely interested in learning about the history of the locations each book covers and you also have to be prepared for the fact that most of his books are around 800-1000 pages long. I think of Rutherfurd’s books as interesting, entertaining history lessons. The quality of his writing is nothing very special and his characters are often very thinly drawn, but when you reach the end of one of his novels you feel that you’ve really learned a lot and have gained a good understanding of the place you’ve been reading about.
While this book was not without its flaws, I did love Paris. It’s not his best book by any means, and I definitely prefer the more linear structure of Sarum, Russka and the others, but this book was still a big improvement on his last one, New York. One problem I had noted with New York was that Rutherfurd seemed to run out of ideas towards the end, making the last few chapters very weak. This was not the case at all with Paris – in fact, the final chapter, on World War Two and the French Resistance was one of my favourites. It has definitely been worth the time and effort it took to read this book – and it has left me wanting to visit Paris again soon. I’m not officially taking part in Paris in July (I read this book in June) but Paris would have been a perfect choice!