CHRISTMAS IN PARIS: 2002 begins with a taxi ride from Charles de
Gaulle airport to Paris. I've taken that taxi --- if you travel to
Paris regularly, it's like a trip through your past, rushing you by
hotels you've stayed in, reminding you of the person you used to
So it is for Joseph Steiner, a New Yorker who first came to Paris
thirty years earlier. Now he's married, living in Manhattan, with a
20-year-old son off at college. Steiner may not be a star, but he
has good connections --- he and his wife are staying in the
apartment of married friends who are, like him, in the TV news
business. (One was "in a place where there'd just been a war." The
other was "on her way to a place where war was coming soon.")
The war that everyone knows is coming is a large presence in this
book; it's a bookend to 9/11 and to the general question of
American heroism. Steiner's wife, Mary, runs a small publishing
imprint and has commissioned a book about Islamic radicalism. It's
been selling briskly --- Mary is savvy and quite successful.
Steiner is less so; he's just lost his job.
That gloomy fact looms even larger for Steiner than the drumbeats
announcing impending war in Iraq. He has some money saved, but the
loss of a vocational identity is a body blow --- and it isn't
helped, in the borrowed Paris apartment, when he plucks some books
from a shelf and discovers they're signed by the authors. There's
also a framed picture of the cast of a popular TV show. Everybody's
somebody. But, Steiner has to wonder, who is he?
The Steiners go to dinner with friends. The conversation is a
deadly accurate portrait of accomplished people talking shop.
Later, they pause in front of a store with a display for Karl
Lagerfeld's new diet book. Steiner is astonished by the designer's
weight loss; Mary wonders if the book has an American publisher.
Not large events. But the right ones --- hey, the Steiners are on
Which means we spend a fair amount of time in Joseph Steiner's
head. Reliving the experience of being fired. Thinking about
Balzac, his favorite writer, who reminds him that "money became
more important as you got older; it cushioned you from the world."
And musing about Paris, a city he's visited as often as possible,
because going there "was a bit like cheating on your wife without
the burdens of deception or the pleasures of young flesh."
Paris is a theme park, a stage set --- a spread-out shopping mall
for people who hate real malls. Mary springs for a leather jacket.
(In a book of small incidents, this has the effect of a gun going
off.) Steiner, though unemployed, does his share of shopping. "If
Fitzgerald was correct and character was action, Steiner was in big
trouble: he'd done almost nothing. But if shopping was character,
then Steiner was a Hemingway hero."
You could easily conclude that this is a book about a small man and
a shaky marriage. Wrong. It's the story of a real man in a real
marriage --- it's like journalism tricked up to read like fiction.
Because Steiner does "know" a few things. "He knew that his wife
was beautiful and Lord knows she always tried to speak the
truth....And there was still something beautiful within America,
though darkness was falling all around."
These are not the exciting truths of the young. They're the home
truths of middle age. They acknowledge loss but not defeat ---
they're the guiding principles of people who lead middle-management
lives. Put another way, they're the truths that power the lives of
people we know --- of the people we are.
Reading Ron Fried, I began to think he could read my mind. He
doesn't miss a beat --- he's terrific at describing worry and pride
and vanity. He can do bitterness. He can recreate sadness. And in
what looks like a little book about a ho-hum week in Paris, he can
deliver a rich, satisfying portrait of two people who will make you
think in a whole new way about yourself and your choices.
Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on December 27, 2010
Christmas in Paris, 2002