Doubleday, 2013, 809 pages
Internationally best-selling author Edward Rutherfurd has enchanted millions of readers with his sweeping, multigenerational dramas that illuminate the great achievements and travails throughout history. In this breathtaking saga of love, war, art, and intrigue, Rutherfurd has set his sights on the most magnificent city in the world: Paris.
Moving back and forth in time across centuries, the story unfolds through intimate and vivid tales of self-discovery, divided loyalties, passion, and long-kept secrets of characters both fictional and real, all set against the backdrop of the glorious city - from the building of Notre Dame to the dangerous machinations of Cardinal Richlieu; from the glittering court of Versailles to the violence of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune; from the hedonism of the Belle Époque, the heyday of the impressionists, to the tragedy of the First World War; from the 1920s when the writers of the Lost Generation could be found drinking at Les Deux Magots to the Nazi occupation, the heroic efforts of the French Resistance, and the 1968 student revolt.
With his unrivaled blend of impeccable research and narrative verve, Rutherfurd weaves an extraordinary narrative tapestry that captures all the glory of Paris. More richly detailed, more thrilling, and more romantic then anything Rutherfurd has written before, Paris: The Novel wonderfully illuminates hundreds of years in the City of Light and Love and brings the sights, scents, and tastes of Paris to sumptuous life.
Edward Rutherfurd has a formula: take an ancient city, put a few families in it, and follow their triumphs and tragedies across the centuries, using each family as a recurring archetype for the multiple generations of characters that reappear.
I find his formula very satisfying and entertaining, even if it is very much family melodrama wrapped in historical trivia.
With Paris, he varied from the linear timeline a bit. We start in La Belle Époque of the Third Republic, with the Gascon brothers, then he skips back and forth, from the 12th to the 16th to the 20th century, back to the medieval era, and continuing to move back and forth until the storyline reaches the interwar period and stays there, where we'll meet the Gascons again during the Nazi occupation.
Unlike Sarum, which went all the way back to the city's paleolithic ancestors, Paris doesn't even go back to the town's Roman settlement. Rutherfurd evidently wanted to keep this novel about France and the French. (And it was long enough as it is!) So the earliest appearance of the book's six families is the 12th century.
Our six families are the Le Sourds, the de Cygnes, the Renards, the Blanchards, the Gascons, and the Jacobs. As with Rutherfurd's previous books, these six families will interact, often in the same way their ancestors did, without ever realizing it. The Le Sourds, for example, begin as criminals, with the elder Le Sourd being the leader of medieval Paris's underworld. On a whim, he befriends a young aristocrat named de Cygne, only to be betrayed by him and sent to hang, but not before telling his son to never trust the nobility. Centuries later, a de Cygne orders the death of one of the Le Sourds after the destruction of the Paris Commune. His young son becomes a Marxist revolutionary, sworn to avenge himself against de Cygne's son, only for the two of them, as old men, to join forces against the Nazis.
The Gascons, likewise, are introduced to us by way of a young mason working on the Notre-Dame cathedral, while trying to keep his distractible, irresponsible brother out of trouble. Centuries later, his descendant Thomas helps build the Eiffel Tower, while his younger brother Luke becomes a fixer and a grifter, until the coming of the Nazis, when Thomas joins the Maquis and Luke turns collaborator.
The stories of Renards and the Blanchards (bourgeois merchants and monarchist patriots, respectively) involve more family drama, romances, marriages, comedies of manners, and business enterprises.
The Jacobs, representing Paris's much-oppressed Jews, get only occasional cameos, usually to suffer whatever oppression is happening to the Jews this century.
It's a dynastic soap opera filled with historical trivia. Sometimes the family drama steals the spotlight from the history, and sometimes the characters are just there to show us what's happening in Paris this decade. As with his previous books, Rutherfurd will give some generations multiple chapters to tell a long, involved story, and others get skimmed over quickly. When it comes to World War II, though, I think he tied together all the familial storylines together in a very satisfying way, almost as if this was the climactic final gathering. It was quite an improvement over Russka, which allowed the Dark Ages and the medieval period and the Napoleonic era to go on and on, and then zoomed through the 20th century. Paris ends in 1968, with only a single named character left to focus on.
Rutherfurd clearly does a lot of research, but a lot of it feels like a tourist's view of Parisian history, hitting all the highlights and the major attractions but never delving too deeply. It's a bit cheesy (especially the sex scenes) and occasionally a bit purple, but I still loved it. A big, bloated historical soap opera with much love for the City of Lights.
Also by Edward Rutherfurd: My reviews of Sarum: The Novel of England, New York, and Russka.
My complete list of book reviews.