Unhappy Women Being Mysterious In Paris part II: Unbecoming

Earlier this month I noticed that my reading habits had taken on a brief trend: books about secretive young woman hiding from their problems in Paris.  Patrick Modiano’s In The Café Of Lost Youth introduced me to the inscrutable, magnetic, restless Louki.  The book’s three other narrators found themselves consumed with interest in Louki’s past, her motivations, and her preference for the “neutral zones” in Paris, where everything seems either suspended or in transit.  The next book I picked up to read was Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm.  It so transpired that Unbecoming also features a secretive, no-entirely-heroic female protagonist who tries to hide by melting into the Paris scenery.

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Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

Star Rating:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

“The first lie Grace had told Hanna was her name.” That’s the first line in Unbecoming.  Grace was the beautiful, accommodating, clever girl from Garland, Tennessee.  In Paris, she introduces herself as Julie “because it was sweet and easy on the French tongue.”   Already, we’re focused on a woman lying about her name in Paris.  Excellent.

The tense descriptions of Grace’s furtive life in Paris immediately made me curious about what had happened in Tennessee to make her so determinedly ignore-able. In a small antique refurbishment workshop, with only her co-worker as anything like a friend, Grace repairs gold plating, oils hinges, and worries constantly that the boys she knew in Garland will find her.  In between scenes at Parisian flea markets and intriguing peeps into the goings-on at Zanuso et Filles (where not all the antiques are necessarily being repaired), hints at Grace’s reasons for leaving America transform into the real story.

The real story is that Grace wanted to be part of Riley Graham’s perfect, loving family ever since she was a child.  The real story is that she learned how to be a good girlfriend, a good daughter-in-law, a good member of the group, and perfected it to an art form.  Grace’s motivations for this assimilation into a life of Southern charm were largely innocent – the scenes in which she adores Mrs. Graham’s lifestyle and looks after Riley’s feelings show how sweet she can be – but in her practice at becoming what other people want her to be, she honed how to use her skills of manipulation more seriously.

Falling in love with Riley’s best friend definitely wasn’t part of the plan, but it shakes Grace up so much that her relationship struggles lead to a bigger, badder, better plan: robbing the historic Wynn house for it’s overlooked valuables.  With her knowledge from a stint with antiques at college in NYC, Riley’s unimaginative but impressive painting techniques, and two slightly unhinged cohorts (one of them Alls, the aforementioned best friend) the nervy crew of teenagers sets about to pull a heist that goes from a funny hypothetical to potential disaster real fast.  Not everyone can hold up under the pressure.  When the boys get caught, Grace hopes that she’ll be able to disappear from the town’s memory in Europe, but the two men get let out on parole right where the first chapter of Unbecoming begins.  We don’t know who Grace is afraid of, but she’s sure one of them will try to find her, and she desperately does not want to be found.

Grace’s morally ambiguous, totally conniving mind kept me racing to catch up with her every step of the way in this gripping but occasionally over-dramatic debut novel.  I don’t know if I liked Grace by the end of the book, but I was always interested to see what steps she would take to ensure her own security.  The best moments, in my opinion, were the ones in which the (anti?)heroine recognizes what sort of person would succeed in a situation, then takes careful internal steps to become that person.  The idyllic Graham house could have seemed too cloying had not their comfortable family scenes been shown through the lens of Grace’s intense desire to play a role in their daily life.  Grace’s introduction to the outlandish world of New York art students almost had me convinced that she was really an innocent country girl at heart, had she not then betrayed the only truly innocent country heart in the whole novel soon after.  Even in Paris, where I thought she was trying to become a better person, Grace – or Julie – has a really big trick up her sleeve.

The plot twists weren’t nearly so clever as those in The Goldfinch, which stopped my heart, but Unbecoming does have a plot that might appeal to fans of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer winner.  This is a much lighter book, without the deft touches of characterization, but there’s old stuff and plotting and best friends who make enemies superfluous. Plus, women being mysterious in Paris!  The differences between Garland – where everyone knew everyone, where Riley painted pictures of beloved buildings that the whole town called “art”, where Grace thought she would be a good wife in her favorite family – and Paris were jarring and nicely done.  I closed the book feeling a little annoyed at the note on which it ended, which was satisfying if not terribly thoughtful, but I also wished, at the end, that Grace had been able to experience Paris the way she dreamed she would: with her husband, loving the scenery, absorbing the art.

That’s not how unhappy women being mysterious in Paris end up, though.  Grace gets what she deserves, and I’ll admit that the person she becomes at the end of Unbecoming is much more her style – more glamorous, happily manipulative, and even more mysterious than before.

Unhappy Women Being Mysterious In Paris Part I : In The Café Of Lost Youth

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In The Café Of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Star Rating:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

When one of my favorite regulars at the Bookshop recently asked me what I’d been reading, the only thing I could think to say was, “Mostly novels about unhappy women being mysterious in Paris.” What a genre! It turns out that there are all sorts of enjoyable books on the subject, and for a week I was stuck on them. Something about the notion of disappearing into a city full of history and art, seedy cafes and “neutral zones,” clearly appeals to morose young women struck by wanderlust. Louki and Grace (from Unbecoming, the next book I will review) feel it as they try to camouflage themselves within the scenery in their novels. And I felt it too, reading from my unseasonably damp corner of New England.

In The Café Of Lost Youth is the first Modiano novel I’ve read, though he blipped onto my radar with his Nobel Prize win in 2014. It’s a short little book, just over a hundred pages, but reading it made me feel like I’ve lived in Paris for years. The novel is broken into four sections, each narrated by a different character, but it all revolves around Louki, “the waiflike figure” who draws their interest like planets circling a sun. Even the section narrated by Louki makes her only more attractively unfathomable. Aside from Louki, In The Café Of Lost Youth also considers the places where the atmosphere broadcasts exactly what part of Paris you are in versus the places where time has no dominion.

“There was a series of transitional zones in Paris, no man’s lands where we were on the border of everything else, in transit, or even held suspended. Within, we benefitted from a certain kind of immunity. I might have called them free zones, but neutral zones was more precise.” (p 83)

These neutral zones could exist anywhere, and it’s easy to see their appeal to people looking to hide out from their pasts. Louki, who makes a habit of disappearing from whatever family life begins to form around her, sort of becomes the patron saint of these places. Roland, who struggles to put his thoughts about these spaces into words, is powerfully moved by their potential, struck by their propensity for the “eternal return”. On the other hand, certain scenes near the Moulin Rouge; on certain hilly streets; or in the cafe where we meet our characters for the first time, are so vivid they could never be neutral for a moment.

I particularly like the first narrator’s description of the Conde; he a shy student entranced by the regulars:

“Along with Le Bouquet and La Pergola, it was one of the cafes in the neighborhood that closed the latest, and the one with the strangest clientele. I often ask myself now that time has passed, if it wasn’t her presence alone that gave this place and these people their strangeness, as if she had impregnated them all with her scent.” (p 7)

I’ve no clue if the characters make the settings in this book, or if the settings amplify the characters, but the sense of place is a fine reflection of both. While the writing occasionally becomes sorrowful, hung up on the unattainable past, Modiano finds the perfect location for every scene and redeems the tone with astonishing details.

After reading, I learned that some of the characters were real people among the political and bohemian set in 1950s Paris. Ed van der Elsken’s photos are a great illustration of the novel’s atmosphere and characters. Not knowing the first thing about the theoretical groups of this time period didn’t stop me from enjoying the abstract conversations and tangled gossip at Condé. Being a chronic cafe-dweller myself, I relished every scene that took place at regulars’ tables or in garish late night public spaces. The novel, especially the first narrator’s chapter, is immensely satisfying for the eavesdropper in all of us.

My one major gripe with In The Café Of Lost Youth has to do with its conclusion. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that there are a few events which seem to befall beguiling, unpredictable young women in novels written by men. It’s gotten to the point that every time a character such as Louki – ethereal, charming, secretive – gets introduced into a male narrator’s story, I hold my breath and hope she won’t be just another chick who does something drastic, teaching dudes that they can never really know a person. Modiano is a tremendous writer and handled Louki’s character very well, I thought, but he does give her one of the plot twists I was dreading just at the end of the story. Does this make since given her character? Sure. But I still think that enigmatic women deserve a few more options at the end of their stories.

In perusing his Wikipedia page, I’ve learned that the majority of Modiano’s novels deal with the reigning themes I detected in The Cafe. Questioning identity, the puzzling permanence of time, the unknowable nature of people, all in a French accent. (A note: Modiano’s Wikipedia page is actually quite interesting to read.) If all of his books send me into a similar stupor of introspective moodiness, I might wait a while before picking up another one. But I felt right at home among the cafe tables and the midnight streets, so the next time I want a mental trip to vintage Paris, I know where to look.

 

 

Book Review: Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8-13

We have a stack of Rooftoppers on display at my bookshop right now, and I will admit that I was enamored with this new-to-America children’s book even before I read it.  The cover is beautiful and subdued; an old fashioned design which won’t look out of place tucked alongside classics like The Golden Compass and The Graveyard BookRooftoppers has a charming narrative voice which calls to mind some of my favorite children’s books like Inkheart and Peter Pan, alongside a timeless setting for secretive adventures similar to The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

While it shares some excellent qualities with each of these books, though, Rundell’s writing has a unique style all her own.  She chooses her words carefully but includes enough warmth and wit in all of her dialogue and descriptions to keep us smiling at her dreamy view of the world.  I say “dreamy” there simply because I’m not poetic enough this morning to capture the right words to describe the mood of Rooftoppers. It is exactly the sort of book I would have wanted to read sitting in the cold moonlight after everyone had gone to bed when I was nine or ten years old.  There’s beautiful imagery, international travel, clever conversations, and intrepid children having adventures in a word all their own.

The story starts with a baby getting rescued from the a shipwreck, found floating in a cello case by an awkward but kindhearted scholar.  From the second page, we get a reassuring peek into the nature of the relationship between rescuer and cello-baby: “It is a scholar’s job to notice things.  He noticed that it was a girl, with hair the color of lightning, and the smile of a shy person.”  Charles raises Sophie on his own, and she grows up happily in his curious house eating cake off books (she has a tendency to break plates), reading Shakespeare, and ignoring the tangles in her hair.  Sophie refuses to give up hope that her mother still lives, and a phrase which she and Charles share with each other on numerous seemingly-hopeless occasions is “never ignore a possible.”  The family they make is happy but unconventional and so, as it often happens in books about blissfully un-brushed and precocious children, the dubiously omniscient “state” decides to meddle.  The unfeeling Ms. Eliot, a rigid woman from the National Childcare Agency who is described as often speaking in italics, decides that Charles is unfit to raise Sophie.  It seems he knows so little about bringing up girls he has scandalously allowed her to wear a shirt which buttons on the right like a man’s, as well as a slew of other frustratingly closed-minded grievances.

In defiance of their orders to be separated from one another, Charles and Sophie risk everything to escape England with high spirits in the face of adventure.  They follow a clue found in Sophie’s old floating cello case to a music shop in Paris, and decide to try and find her mother while they wait to be left in peace.  One thread of the plot which puzzled me a little was the selflessness of Charles as he helps the child he raised go searching for a mother she had never met, but between his devotion to her happiness and the unlikely odds that the woman is even alive, I could easily shelve my cynical expectations.  In Paris, Charles and Sophie have to match wits with shifty police officers and obnoxious legal waffling.  Sick of hiding in her hotel room all day, Sophie climbs up to the roof, only to discover that the rooftops of Paris are home to groups of children living free from the rules of the streets below.  She strikes up a friendship with Matteo, an orphan who vows never to go down into the streets again, and some of his friends and learns that thrill and freedom of a life above city could provide her not only with a measure of safety from the authorities but also, if she’s very lucky; very careful; and very brave; a path to her long lost mother.

I know that the books to which I compared Rooftoppers were mostly stories with some fantasy elements, but this novel is actually not a fantasy at all.  I hesitate to call it “realism,” since the historical setting is rather vague to allow for the traditional elements of a Nineteenth Century children’s adventure, but there’s no magic other than luck, hope, and powerful music.  Many of the characters also bear descriptions which imbue them with almost fairy-tale qualities: for example, Charles “had kindness where other people had lungs, and politeness in his fingertips.”  Because the characters tend to see each other as wondrous beings, there’s no real need for dragons or spells.

It was an absolute pleasure to read about Sophie and Charles as they looked out for one another, and I was easily convinced by Matteo and his hardscrabble friends that the unconstrained world above ground is the best sort of freedom a child could imagine.  The characters in Rooftoppers were determined, resourceful, and hopeful even in the face of devastating disappointment.  If Rundell had been less skilled in her creation of a storybook atmosphere, I think I might have found some of the characters and events a little too good to be true.  Luckily, she writes so beautifully that even where the plot failed to surprise me it still managed to be delightful.

The tension in Rooftoppers sems mostly from the risk of characters losing one another, which is sweet and meaningful but means that readers who are easily frightened won’t find themselves haunted by the terrifying situations which are so plentiful in other Middle Grade novels.  (I loved me some terror when I was of that age, but I understand that some parents would rather not be woken to the sound of screams after their kid stays up too late reading.)  There’s a little bit of violence, but it’s more reminiscent of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan than any true evil.  The end was bittersweet and a little abrupt, but I was extremely relieved to see that there was no cliffhanger paving the way for a sequel.  Rooftoppers can stand alone as a charming book to read on a dark night, particularly if the power’s out and you’ve got a warm fire, and you’ll be thinking about Sophie, Charles, and the shadowy children against the sky long after their adventures are through.

I haven’t been so entranced by the rooftops of Paris since I went through a phase in  Elementary School in which I watched The Hunchback Of Notre Dame every afternoon.   I imagine that sensitive children with mysterious spirits, and grown-ups who miss the atmospheric stories which stuck with them throughout the years, will enjoy Rooftoppers.  It leaves you with your head in the clouds and your heart in your throat.