My advance review copy of Paris weighs over 900 grams and is over 670 pages long. I didn’t keep count of the number of characters the book follows, but the number was high – and with about 800 years of Parisian and wider French events to cover, it’s understandable.
Paris tells the story of the city through the lives of four families who bump against each other and occasionally intertwine over many centuries. Significant events and periods in Parisian history – from multiple religious expulsions to The Terror, the reign of the Sun King to occupation in World War II – are interpreted by the actions and reactions of members of the families, all from different social strata, but all determined to survive.
I will admit to struggling to get into Paris – but once I got the hang of the plot skipping backwards and forwards between families and time periods, and realised that there was a central plot arc that everything was feeding into, I found it hard to put the book down, and the housework and garden were neglected as I chose to keep reading to get to the story’s conclusion.
The bulk of the novel deals with a set of characters living between the 1870s and the end of World War II, and the stories that fall outside this period are a seasoning that add richness and dimension to the story. Rutherfurd cleverly weaves his narrative so that you don’t always realise the significance of a scene, or even a whole chapter, until later in the story; I found myself having small “a-ha!” moments when I’d realise that something I’d read dozens (if not hundreds) of pages earlier was a clue to the current storyline.
A strength of Rutherfurd’s style is that he doesn’t assume the reader has prior knowledge of French history or language, of Parisian geography. The story is clearly very well researched, and events are explained without feeling like you’re sitting in a school room, and not needing to stop and check what a French phrase meant was great. Being an advance proof, my copy did not contain the family tree or maps of Paris that are in the final published book and will greatly add to the richness of the reader experience. Without these, the travelling backward and forward in time, the historically correct repetition of ancestral first names, and my ignorance of the layout of Paris, made some parts of the story feel a little muddy. I understood the action, but couldn’t always see things clearly.
Characters in Paris, as in the real world, sit on the spectrum from thoroughly unlikeable to delightful, with steel worker Thomas Gascon being a favourite of mine. I was really interested in some of the minor players who weren’t from the main four families, particularly some members of the Renard/Fox and Jacob families, and would like to have read more about them. It felt like the Gascon family got less attention than the other three families, and I would have like to follow their story more. The death of a strong female character near the end of the book was not commented on by the other characters, which felt odd and jarred a bit, especially in the circumstances; it felt like a loose end that had been dropped. Over everything hung the spectre of a rigid class system, blindly accepted by some characters, and fought against by others.
When I started Paris I wasn’t sure that I’d be writing a genuinely positive review; now I’m looking forward to rereading it, with family tree and maps close to hand.
For an interesting review with the author about this book, I recommend this interview on Radio NZ National (the audio file will download when you click the link).
Reviewed by Rachel Moore
by Edward Rutherfurd
Published by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd