- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
A 47-year old woman normally wouldn’t seem to be concerned about a bucket list of things to do before you shuffle off this mortal coil, but by 2009, Eloisa James — the pen name of Shakespeare scholar and professor of English Mary Bly — had experienced several far from normal years.
As she writes in “Paris in Love: A Memoir” (Random House, 252 pages, $26.00) 2009 was a year of decision: In December 2007 her mother died of cancer and two weeks later James/Bly was diagnosed with breast cancer. After successful surgery, James/Bly and her husband, Alessandro, who teaches Italian at Rutgers University in New Jersey, decided to sell their suburban New Jersey house and dispose of most of its contents — including the thousands of books she had collected over the years and just about her entire wardrobe — and take a sabbatical year — she from Fordham University and he from Rutgers, spend the summer in Tuscany, the Italian region where Alessandro was born, and rent an apartment in Paris. (I can identify with her; when we sold our big, object-laden house in 2008, I had to get rid of thousands of books and many LP records and most of the clothes I didn’t need.)
James — I’ll call her that from now on — experienced pushback from her children — 10-year-old Anna and 15-year-old Luca — who were reluctant to leave their familiar life and friends behind, if only for a year. Her wise-beyond-years offspring pointed out that despite three years of French classes, James was a non-speaker. Only Alessandro spoke French, fluently, along with several other languages.
As if that would stop the Minnesota-born daughter of the noted poet Robert Bly, born in 1926, who is probably even more famous for his “Iron John” men’s movement. His 1990 “Iron John: A Book About Men” spent 62 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.
The goal, once settled in their Paris apartment, was for James to write a scholarly article and a couple of romance novels, and explore the ordinary pleasures of Paris, discovering out-of-the-way museums and art galleries, walking one of the world’s greatest walking cities and maybe even trying to figure out how Frenchwomen managed to stave off obesity, as chronicled in Mireille Guiliani’s “French Women Don’t Get Fat”. (for my 2005 review of this delightful book, click:archives.huntingtonnews.net/events/050206-kinchen-bookreview.html
James had a precedent in her move to France: Her sister mentioned that a relative on her mother’s side had published a memoir about living in Paris.
“I’d never heard of Claude C. Washburn, who was one of my grandmother’s brothers and died before I was born,” she writes. “But today the post brought ‘Pages from the Book of Paris’, published in 1910. From what I can gather, Claude was born in Duluth, Minnesota, and moved to Europe after getting his undergraduate degree, living in France and Italy. At some point after his year or so in Paris, he married a woman with the unusual name of Ivé. I’m not very far into the book, but so far he has characterized marriage as ‘an ignominious institution’ and boasted of his ‘increasing exultation’ at remaining a bachelor, steering clear of ‘the matrimonial rocks, that beset one’s early progress, toward the open sea of recognized bachelordom.’ Ivé must have scuppered his vessel before he could steer clear of her rocks.”
James discovered that Guiliani was only partly right, that in reality, French women come in all sizes and manage to look chic because they understand the need to select the right garment and make sure it fits properly. She learned from a banker friend that every pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear) garment first goes to a tailor who adjusts the fit to its new owner. Tailors are everywhere in Paris, and are relatively inexpensive.
“Paris in Love” toggles between short paragraphs and longer expository passages — many of which deal with the differences between food in Paris and in the States — in a way that kept my interest through to the end in a one-sitting reading. I have to admit that — as a native Midwesterner unadventurous eater — some of the things the French eat make me turn immediately to the dessert menu! Here are a excerpts from the book, to whet your appetite:
One October day we picked up Anna and her new friend Erica after school and walked to the Eiffel Tower. The girls ran ahead, zooming here and there like drunk fighter pilots showing off. Alessandro and I tried to imagine why the French ever planned to demolish the tower after the 1889 World Fair. It’s such a beautiful, sturdy accomplishment; destroying it would be like painting over the Mona Lisa because of her long nose. Smallish bateaux mouches, or tourist boats, moor in the Seine near the foot of the tower, or so my guidebook said. We wandered beneath the lacework iron, the girls skittering and shrieking like seagulls. Down by the water we paid for the cheaper tickets, the kind that come without crepes and champagne. With twenty minutes to wait, we retreated to an ancient carousel next to the river. A plumpy woman sat huddled in her little ticket box, shielded from tourists and the rain, although as yet neither had appeared.
Anna and Erica clambered aboard, but still the operator waited, apparently hoping that two children astride would somehow attract more. The girls sat tensely on their garish horses, their skinny legs a little too long. At ten years old, they’ll soon find themselves too dignified for such childish amusements. But not yet.
Finally the music started and the horses jerked forward. A crowded merry-go-round on a sunny day is a blur of children’s grins and bouncing bottoms. But as the girls disappeared from view, leaving us to watch riderless horses jolt up and down, I realized that an empty merry-go-round on a cloudy day loses that frantic gaiety, the sense that the horses dash toward some joyful finish line.
These horses could have been objets trouvés, discovered on a dustheap and pressed into service. The steed behind Anna’s was missing the lower half of his front leg.
On the Métro heading to school, Anna launched into a wicked impersonation of her enraged English teacher stamping her foot: “Shut zee mouths! Zit down! Little cretins!” The entire subway car was laughing, though Anna remained totally unaware of her captive and captivated audience.
Alessandro brought home a very successful makeup present after the non-flowers: a heart-shaped cheese, sort of a Camembert/Brie, as creamy as butter and twice as delicious. We ate it on crusty bread, with a simple salad of orange peppers, and kiwis for dessert.
I just came across a list Luca created on a scrap of paper. At the top of the sheet he wrote (in cursive) “The End.”
The list is entitled “Several Problems”:
–Can’t write in cursive script
–Can’t write in Italian
–Don’t think I copied the math homework down correctly
–Screwed up on the Italian writing evaluation
–Have French essay for Monday
–Need my books by tomorrow
I feel terrible. What have we done, bringing him here? I have ulcers just reading the list.
Add “Paris in Love” to your immediate bucket list of books to read and cherish. Even if you have no plans to move to the city. If you have Parisian travel plans, be sure to take “Paris in Love” along. The part about Luca experiencing difficulty writing in cursive mystified me until I did some research; a lot of kids today are growing up without learning how to write the way generations of people did; keyboarding has replaced handwriting, not supplementing it! In Indiana, for instance, teaching children to write in cursive is a local option — not a requirement: Link: http://www.fox59.com/news/wxin-cursive-writing-schools-no-longer-required-to-teach-cursive-beginning-this-fall-20110630,0,7533627.story.
About the Author
Mary Bly (aka Eloisa James) is a full professor and co-director of the creative writing program at Fordham University in New York City. She and her family now live in New York City. As Eloisa James, she is a bestselling author of romance novels, including “The Duke Is Mine,” “When Beauty Tamed the Beast,” and “A Kiss at Midnight.” Her website:www.eloisajames.com.