In her novel LE DIVORCE, which was made into a feature film, Diane Johnson tells the story of two sisters from California who find love and adventure in the City of Light. This transatlantic tale mirrors in some ways the real-life experiences of Johnson, who for years has lived in both San Francisco and Paris.
Aside from inspiration for her fiction, Johnson's affinity for the French way of life is the basis of INTO A PARIS QUARTIER. The quartier of the title is St.-Germain-des-Prés, the sixth arrondissement of Paris, the district that has hosted some of history's most famous figures --- royalty, philosophers, artists, writers, musicians, and other illustrious folk. St.-Germain is also the location of Johnson's Parisian home, an apartment at 8 Rue Bonaparte, a stone's throw from where the painter Edouard Manet was born and the writer Oscar Wilde died.
How did Johnson come to be living part-time in Paris? "For the thousandth time, I reflect on why I myself am here, an unexpected fate," she tells us. She accompanied her husband on a business trip to Paris; they fell in love with the city and found themselves "settling in."
Fate may have had something to do with her residing in Paris, but Johnson also credits Alexandre Dumas with playing a role. Her connection to St.-Germain "started in childhood, thousands of miles away" when, at the age of nine, she discovered Dumas' books at a local library in Moline, Illinois. "That is where Paris and I start," she says, "with my childhood reading of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, LA REINE MARGOT, and, above all, THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Was it this early passion for Dumas that preordained that I would someday live five minutes walk from where the real d'Artagnan lived, almost on the spot where the Musketeers fought their duels, and, above all, where the romantic queens of legend, Marguerite de Valois, then Navarre, and Anne of Austria actually trod, four centuries ago?"
Johnson's nonfiction narrative is not to be confused with a guidebook. "To recount the rich history of this quarter, describe the abundant details of its architecture, try to convey its beauty, suggest its meaning to others, mention the fascinating characters who have lived here --- all this defies brevity; some principle of selection was called for," she writes. Instead, INTO A PARIS QUARTIER is "a subjective account of the things" that Johnson encounters in her daily life in St.-Germain.
One of those things is the Chapel of Praises. Built by Marguerite de Valois (la Reine Margot), the first wife of King Henri IV and the subject of one of Dumas' books, the chapel is visible from Johnson's kitchen window. Even a walk to buy groceries conjures up ghosts from the past, allowing Johnson to illustrate how this quartier's rich history continues to intersect with modern-day St.-Germain --- a place where a Louis Vitton boutique is as much a fixture as a restaurant that has served patrons since the 17th century.
Whether recounting the history of a queen, following in the footsteps of the swashbuckling Three Musketeers, visiting shops along the Quai Voltaire, exploring courtyards and doorways, detailing the delights of a French macaroon (not a coconut confection but a "sort of pastel-colored Oreo" in various flavors), or sharing details about her own life, Johnson is animated and engaging.
Readers of her fiction, Francophiles, and history buffs will enjoy this colorful and leisurely stroll through the neighborhood Johnson calls home. "What luck that life does not turn out exactly as we expect," she says in reference to her having come to live in Paris. And what luck for us that Diane Johnson has decided to share her passion for St.-Germain.
Reviewed by Shannon McKenna on January 22, 2011
Into a Paris Quartier: Reine Margot's Chapel and Other Haunts of St.-Germain