October 22, 2010

Trip Reading: A Luscious New Novel Set in Paris

For anyone – especially any woman – who loves Paris, Joanna Biggar’s new novel, That Paris Year, is a delight both to the senses and to the heart. It’s perfect trip reading for anyone planning a visit.

The novel, set in 1962, follows five young women – students at a small southern California college – as they head to Paris for a “year abroad” at The Sorbonne, where “the weight of centuries hung over the stones.”

Biggar’s exquisite prose evokes the romance of being young and in love in Paris – the “shifting light and dancing leaves” of autumn; “the light so soft over the spires of Cluny it changed the color of the clouds as they drifted overhead.”

Leaving parents and boyfriends behind, the “demoiselles” are captivated by French writers, Paris café life – Café de Flore, Deux Magots, wine caves filled with “more smoke than light, packed-in bodies, sweat, the taste of cognac.” And, of course, there were the men, one a dark prince from Dakar; another a handsome silver-haired Frenchman wearing a cravat and a jacket as well-tailored as his come-ons.

During their Paris year, the girls (and they would have been called girls, back then) encounter the harsh realities of life there, “the high-pitched tearing of the wind,” “rain falling like ice needles,” the suffocating life of their concierge,  “a lonely old woman who longed for things she no longer knew how to describe.”

The demoiselles are foreigners, “drifting predictably … like newly feathered birds, chirping away in lightly accented French.” But even in Paris they can’t escape their own hopes, their fears and the pressure to think about their futures.

That Paris Year offers a luscious, poetic view of the City of Lights, a nostalgic glimpse of life in the 60s, a timeless look at the choices young women make on their way to adulthood.

Make room in your suitcase for this one.

Also check out the author’s essay, “Slow Lit,” about the writing of That Paris Year.

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Anne Sigmon

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