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Christmas in Paris 2002


Christmas in Paris 2002

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 be.

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 vacation.

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
by Ronald K. Fried

  • Publication Date: December 1, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 148 pages
  • Publisher: Permanent Press (NY)
  • ISBN-10: 1579621147
  • ISBN-13: 9781579621148