I went into reading The Paris Wife by Paula McLain with a blank slate.  I had never read any of Ernest Hemingway’s novels, and I knew only the bare minimum of biographical information about his life.  This book is a fictionalized account of Hemingway’s first wife Hadley.  It details all of the highs and lows of their complicated relationship, from their first meeting in Chicago in 1920 and subsequent whirlwind marriage to their years of living in Paris and the unraveling of their once happy life together.  Their lives seem glamorous on the surface: spending time with the Fitzgeralds and Gertrude Stein, writing in chic Paris cafes, and taking extended vacations to exotic locales around Europe.  But boiling below the surface is a host of problems.  As attentive and accommodating as Hadley tries to be, she simply cannot contend with Ernest’s ambition, neediness, and thirst for the drink.

The story is told through Hadley’s point of view.  She grew up in a very different setting, much more conservative and traditional than the Jazz Age Paris of the 1920s, so we’re learning about this time and place through brand new eyes.  The writing is lovely and McLain is very successful in making the time period come alive.  Plus, the English major in me got giddy every time a different historical figure popped up in the story.  I actually listened to the audio version of The Paris Wife and it was very well done.  Even though anyone who knows even a little bit about Hemingway has an idea of how this story ends, it’s still a compelling and engaging read that I would recommend to fans of historical fiction, novels about love and marriage, and Ernest Hemingway.

Anna is happy in Atlanta where she lives with her mother and little brother – looking forward to her senior year of high school,  hanging out with her best friend and working at the local movie theater with her could-be boyfriend. All that changes when her father decides that she should spend her senior year at a boarding school in Paris and no amount of pleading will change his mind.

Paris, of course, turns out to be not such a bad idea – she soon makes friends, starts exploring the city and works on her dream of becoming a film critic. And she meets Etienne St Clair, he of the beautiful hair and charming personality. But wait – he has a girlfriend and what about her crush back home in Atlanta? Will they just be friends, or something more?

Anna and the French Kiss follows Anna through the year, from her first nervous days to her blossoming confidence and growing circle of friends. At first, it’s a little hard to sympathize with Anna – forced to live in Paris! I should have such problems! But her initial loneliness and homesickness are universal emotions and her courage to overcome them soon have you rooting for her. She’s smart and funny and determined – exactly the kind of person you’d like to have as a friend.

While Anna and the French Kiss is light and funny, it’s also well-written and sharp, with a diverse cast of characters and realistic emotions. The opening chapters, when Anna is still learning about her new city, are actually a good introduction to Paris and Parisian culture; the visit to Pere Lachaise Cemetery is especially funny and educational. It’s the perfect combination – great city, great characters, great fun.

 

The Paris of World War II comes to life again in Lynn Sheene’s The Last Time I Saw Paris, as seen through the eyes of an American ex-pat searching to find her own place in the world.

Manhattan socialite Claire Harris has secrets to hide; when those secrets threaten to expose her, she escapes her glittering cage for Paris and the promises made by a summer fling. However, instead of lavish parties and luxury, she arrives in Paris just as the Germans approach, bringing war and depravation, fear and cruelty. Claire stays, scrambling to survive, making friends, finding a place in a world suddenly turned upside down. When her papers expire, she makes a deal with the Resistance, providing information about the Germans in exchange for forged documents.

Sheene keeps the tension high and the action moving briskly. The terror of living under Nazi rule is shown as harsh and random, the fear of not knowing who to trust is vivid. People are realistically portrayed – Claire is a reluctant freedom fighter, only gradually leaving her shallow dreams behind for the good of others; the Resistance is shown as ruthless and not above blackmail; and the ordinary citizen is often simply struggling to survive. This is a quick read – it’s hard to put it down when you can’t wait to find out what will happen!

 Twenty notable directors collaborated on a wonderful movie that gives a great sense of the French capital, Paris, Je T’Aime, which celebrates Paris and Parisian life in eighteen short films.  Each film is located in a different neighborhood of the city so it gives the viewer a sense of life and love in the “City of Lights.” The films are very similar in that they each contain the same theme of love and explore the cosmopolitan feel of Paris, its residents and the tourists who fill the city.  Each film ends where the other begins and that gives the entire film a sense of continuity. In the chance that you don’t like the current selection all you have to do is wait 5 minutes for the next film. 

Paris, Je T’Aime has an impressive lineup of stars including Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood, Nick Nolte and Juliette Binoche.  Directors of the short films include Wes Craven, the Coen Brothers and Gus Van Sant.  Ces’t Magnifique! 

Falling in love in Paris – what could be better than that? How about falling in love in Paris with recipes! Elizabeth Bard lets us tag along in Lunch in Paris as she meets and falls in love with Gwendal, maintains a long-distance relationship (with frequent visits to France), and then at first reluctantly, then whole heartedly, becomes an ex-pat living in Paris.

As a student in London working on her PhD, Elizabeth is able to make frequent weekend trips to Paris to visit friends. Her travels quickly center around food – the sidewalk cafes, the shop with the best croissants, the tiny restaurants known only to the locals. When she begins dating Gwendal, she begins to view meals and eating like the French do – even the simplest meal should be created with care and attention, eaten slowly and enjoyed. She learns to shop like a Parisian, buying just enough food for each meal, going to the fishmonger, the butcher, the farmer’s market for fresh ingredients. Along the way she finds a doorway into the French culture and thought, while gaining new insights into her American heritage.

Bard writes with confidence and wit, unafraid to expose her American learning curve. She is enthusiastic about trying any dish, and an adventurer in the kitchen. Each chapter is wrapped around a meal (or the memory of a meal) that fits the current stage of her life and finishes with recipes for the food she’s written about. While the recipes are mostly French, she has rewritten them for Americans, with ingredients that are easy to find in the US. This a delightful, mouth-watering memoir will satisfy the cook, the foodie and the traveler in all of us.