“Few places can draw in as many diverse souls, then mark them as profoundly, as this city,” writes editor Penelope Rowlands in her introduction to “Paris Was Ours: Thirty-Two Writers Reflect on the City of Light.” The contributors range from very famous and oft-anthologized—Judith Thurman, David Sedaris and Edmund White, among others—to relatively unknown. Some essays have been published elsewhere; others appear here for the first time.
Diverse as Parisian souls may be, the vast majority of the pieces here can be classified into a few rough-cut categories. There are the “Beginning Expat” essays, characterized by charming accounts of misconjugated verbs and botched café visits. Next to these—related, but nonetheless distinct—are the “French vs. American” comparisons: sartorial habits, social graces and romantic gestures, female beauty, approaches to parenting, quality of bread. Of these, Veronique Vienne’s musing on the French attitude toward money is a standout, being not only stylish and witty but also genuinely interesting. (Opening her own essay on comparative mores, Diane Johnson writes, “I trusted that all I had heard about Frenchwomen… would turn out on closer inspection to be untrue…. Instead I learned that there’s a lot to these stereotypes.” An amusing premise, if not a particularly revelatory one.)
A small handful of writers take on socio-political issues, among them Zoe Valdes, who arrives from communist Cuba afraid of shopping and public transportation, and Janet McDonald, who finds herself considered “just another American” for the first time abroad. But the largest category, by far, are the “La Boheme” essays. (There may be diverse souls in Paris, but they are generally attractive and under 26.) However painful—and, being as much about twentysomething ennui as the city itself, there’s often quite a lot of pain—the impoverished student stories are uniformly romantic, whether or not they feature love affairs. In one of the pearls of the collection, Joe Queenan stumbles through Paris with a rotating crew of international best friends, many of whom—conveniently—share his eyeglass prescription. This is what being young and abroad should look like.
“Paris Was Ours” doesn’t make us rethink Paris, but then, it doesn’t intend to. The women are short-haired and chic, the men unwashed and sexy. The children are precocious, the waiters are rude. The food, of course, is delicious. It’s a collection that illuminates Paris without shedding light on it. More a collective ode than a portrait, Rowlands gives us a city curated specifically for our amore. (Rachel Sugar)
“Paris Was Ours: Thirty-Two Writers Reflect on the City of Light”
Edited by Penelope Rowlands
Algonquin Books, $15.95, 288 pages