Paris in Love: A Memoir
Random House/April 3, 2012/ $26.00 print, $12.99 digital
In 2009, New York Times bestselling author Eloisa James took a leap that many people dream about: she sold her house, took a sabbatical from her job as a Shakespeare professor, and moved her family to Paris. Paris in Love: A Memoir chronicles her joyful year in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
With no classes to teach, no committee meetings to attend, no lawn to mow or cars to park, Eloisa revels in the ordinary pleasures of life—discovering corner museums that tourists overlook, chronicling Frenchwomen’s sartorial triumphs, walking from one end of Paris to another. She copes with her Italian husband’s notions of quality time; her two hilarious children, ages eleven and fifteen, as they navigate schools—not to mention puberty—in a foreign language; and her mother-in-law Marina’s raised eyebrow in the kitchen (even as Marina overfeeds Milo, the family dog).
Paris in Love invites the reader into the life of a most enchanting family, framed by la ville de l’amour.
Eloisa James’s memoir is, as the title indicates, a book about Paris, or at least about Paris as experienced by one American family during a sabbatical year spent in that city. It is filled with vignettes of the city’s landmarks, museums, and restaurants and of its homeless, its school children, its shop keepers. The memoir, again as suggested by the title, is also about love—love of family, friends, food, and fashion (in both the specific and larger senses of that word), as well as love of the city itself. It is, less obviously, a book about time—time spent, time wasted, and time cherished.
James begins with references to time: two years earlier her mother died from cancer and two weeks after her mother’s death, James herself was diagnosed with cancer. These events lead to the year in Paris. The sabbatical year itself is a measure of time. Part of the attraction the year in Paris holds for James (Mary Bly) and her husband, Alessandro Vettori, both literature professors (English for her, Italian for him), is the freedom from the time-consumers of academic life, teaching and committee meetings. The structure of the memoir follows the academic calendar, moving from fall to summer, but within that time frame are the snippets of life lived in a moment (the record James kept of her year through Facebook posts and tweets) interspersed with longer, more reflective essays.
The “small explosions of experience,” as James terms the posts from Facebook and Twitter that make up the greater portion of the book, are often moments lived in sensuous awareness—a visit to a church that is “like being inside an enameled treasure box,” guitar music that follows them “down the street, filling the air all the way to that darkening sky,” food at the oldest oyster restaurant in Paris with oysters that taste of “the ocean’s wild coolness, the faintly alien sense of deep water,” a favorite French soap scented with herb of grace, chocolate “deep and rich, with a silky melt.” Other experiences measured in moments center around family: date nights and an occasional marital spat, the children’s struggles and triumphs in a tough Italian school, fifteen-year-old Luca’s crooning to the obese Chihuahua Milo the song he made up when Milo was a “chubby puppy,” the irrepressible eleven-year-old Anna’s battle with archrival Domitilla: “I slapped her right back. . . . My hand just rose in the air all by itself.”
The longer, more reflective essays weave in times past as memories intersect with present reality. A longing for the elegance of French women evokes a curtains-to-dresses story less successful than Scarlett’s. James thinks of her father, poet Robert Bly: “I’ve watched him struggle with the way age is stealing his words.” And she remembers poems she committed to memory as a child and vows to return to the practice. In bed with a cold and weeping over a memoir of loss, she thinks of her mother: “I wish I could call her. I will always want her arms around me. I still want to cry for her.”
A consciousness of last things runs through the book. James ponders the fact that her son no longer calls her “Mama” but instead uses “Mom.” She writes, “There are so many Lost Times in parenting—the last book read aloud, the last nursing session, the last bath.” After the death of her friend Rose, she of the Marilyn Monroe wig, the infectious laugh, and supreme courage, James receives a package from Rose and delays opening it, knowing it will be “the last letter, the last gift.” As the end of the year in Paris draws near, she writes, “Sweet ‘last times’ pile up in my mind.”
Underlying all of the last things, of course, is her consciousness that life itself is ephemeral. “Along with the rest of humankind,” she writes, “I inherited faulty genes, all of which are programmed to die.” But in the meantime, there is life to be lived with love and grace, memories to make for the next generation, and time to be spent generously and wasted extravagantly. Looking back on the year her family spent in Paris, James draws a conclusion about what she, Alessandro, Luca, and Anna learned: “We learned to waste our moments—together.”
I consider the time I spent reading Paris in Love twice time well spent. James gave me Paris, she sent me back to the poetry of Auden, and she reminded me that lazy moments now and then do not disturb the universe.
Full disclosure: I’m an Eloisa James fan. I served as the contest moderator on her bulletin board (later the Eloisa James/Julia Quinn bulletin board) for several years, I still wave my Bon Bons Forever flag at any opportunity, and I have every EJ book (novellas included) on a keeper shelf. I followed her tweets from Paris religiously, delighting in their charm, humor, and occasional bursts of lyrical description. I knew I’d read this memoir from the moment I learned there would be one. But honestly, even if I’d never hear of Eloisa James, the cover and the back copy would have persuaded me to buy the book and my joy in it would be not one whit the less had the author been a stranger.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.