Edward Rutherfurd does not disappoint aficionados of historical fiction. He has tackled England, most notably in SARUM, LONDON and THE FOREST. He has written of Ireland in two novels, and of Russia and New York. His historical perspective, research and, above all, vivid characterizations of the people within the cataclysmic events that have shaped the history of each of these regions have made him one of the most read and recognized historical fiction writers of our time.
In PARIS, his most romantic and richly detailed work of fiction yet, Rutherfurd brings vividly to life the Paris that survived nearly three centuries of the infamous House of Bourbon kings. Their ruthless reign lasted from the mid-15th century until the final crowned head, that of King Louis XIV, fell to the guillotine in 1893. But the impact of that period defines what Paris is today, perhaps the most complex and majestic city in the world.
"The arts, social mores, the clash of religious cultures and political ideals, architecture, engineering, villainy, heroics, romance and suspense all come together in PARIS. It is a tour de force multigenerational saga, perhaps Rutherfurd’s most ambitious creation to date."
The City of Light and Love has survived the rise and fall of the Inquisition, the Protestant Reformation, banishment of the Jews, and wholesale slaughter of the Huguenots. Kings conveniently converted from Roman Catholic to Protestant and back again to suit the political whims of the times. Two major revolutions tore the kingdom apart in the 19th century, and the city was enveloped in two World Wars in the 20th century. Spared by a French president who signed a much vilified treaty with Hitler, the ravaging bomb raids unleashed on London and Berlin were averted. The act to collaborate with the Germans spurred a fierce French Resistance movement, belatedly helping to end the war in Europe. That decision also left some of the world’s most famous landmarks to remain virtually unblemished by wars and the ages. Such is the complexity of the French people.
These events have been treated individually by authors dating back as far as Voltaire in the 1600s, to Hugo, Zola, Proust and Dickens, and multitudes of other writers. Rutherfurd reserves the details of these familiar events to those creators.
He instead focuses on how the French people were shaped by the swirl of historic events surrounding them. We meet Roland de Cygne, a man of noble lineage, who, along with his heirs, struts across the pages in regal finery with his wife, mistresses and descendants with classic noblesse oblige. The earthy Thomas Gascon and his brother Luc, two young men from Gascony who are believed to be descended from the famous musketeer d'Artagnan, introduce us to the craftsmen working class. Thomas learns his trade with the engineer Gustave Eiffel as an apprentice on construction of the Statue of Liberty in 1883. He goes on to be a principal tradesman in the construction of the Eiffel Tower. Luc applies his roguish talents on the streets, procuring drugs, women, and other services as needed by men who pay well for discreet favors.
The females are strong and resilient. Marie Blanchard, whose family lost everything in the Napoleonic wars, goes on to manage her family’s famous department store at a time when it was unheard of for women to move in the world reserved for men. Louise, the illegitimate daughter of Marie’s prominent art dealer brother, takes the more common route to the executive tower as she becomes the most famous Madame in Paris. The Le Sourds come from a dark and villainous past to play an important role in the Paris Commune and the Revolution. Jacob, the Jewish art dealer descended from merchants throughout history, also plays an important role throughout.
The story leaps centuries, often in bold flashbacks. Such is Rutherfurd’s skill that each major character and his ancestors are easily recognized even when encountered in another century. To buffer any confusion, he conveniently offers a timeline and an abbreviated family lineage chart in the front of the book, to which I referred on more than one occasion.
The arts, social mores, the clash of religious cultures and political ideals, architecture, engineering, villainy, heroics, romance and suspense all come together in PARIS. It is a tour de force multigenerational saga, perhaps Rutherfurd’s most ambitious creation to date.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on April 26, 2013