Not being much of a romance fan, I had never heard of Eloisa James before picking up PARIS IN LOVE. It seems, though, that in certain circles James is Kind of a Big Deal, beloved for her novels such as A KISS AT MIDNIGHT and MUCH ADO ABOUT YOU. PARIS IN LOVE, her memoir of a year her family spent in the City of Light, proves that James --- who is also a scholar of Renaissance literature by the name of Mary Bly --- more than deserves the reputation she has among the romance-reading population.
"PARIS IN LOVE reads like a series of postcards from a delightfully witty friend, dispatches from a place where we, too, would love to while away a year."
Like many a memoirist before her, James' account of her year in Paris was prompted by a huge life change. In her case, it was a breast cancer diagnosis when she was in her 40s, just weeks after she had lost her mother to cancer. James made a full recovery after undergoing a mastectomy, but still felt like something was missing: "I immediately started anticipating the epiphany when I would be struck by the acute beauty of life. I would see joy in my children's eyes (rather than stark rebellion), eschew caffeine, and simply be, preferably while doing yoga in front of a sunset…. Or perhaps not." When James discovers that, unlike in the cancer memoirs she herself enjoys reading, she still has the same old impatient, ambitious psyche, she doesn't know how to make sense of her situation --- until, almost without thinking about it, she starts giving away her possessions in preparation for a sabbatical in Paris.
PARIS IN LOVE is not a traditional memoir, in that it lacks a coherent, overarching narrative, or even much of a theme. There are subplots, of course --- her children's adjustments to the far more challenging school they attend in France, her own weight loss struggles (which pale in comparison to those of the family's rotund Chihuahua), and a sweet love story about one of her Italian husband's lovelorn language students. But overall, the book is composed of James' short, bite-sized missives, originally posted as status updates on Facebook.
The result is a series of observations, anecdotes and short vignettes that lend insight not only into James' family and her own personality but also into the heart of Paris itself, both its museums and boulevards, as well as the (often less romantic) realities largely invisible to tourists: protest marches, homelessness, and really bad food. Of course there are plenty of charming moments as well, often prompted by James' own children and by her observations of kids on the street: "I was sitting in a cafe when an adorable two-year-old toddled past, wearing black tights, a black-and-white checked dress, and a black sweater. And a black barrette. No wonder Parisians are effortlessly sophisticated --- they learn the virtues of a little black dress when we're all still wearing Disney T-shirts emblazoned with pink rhinestones and sunglasses to match."
Although the lack of a sustained narrative can make the book feel frivolous and insubstantial, her observations can also be rich and delectable --- like a dark chocolate bonbon, perhaps. More than anything, PARIS IN LOVE reads like a series of postcards from a delightfully witty friend, dispatches from a place where we, too, would love to while away a year.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 5, 2012