Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Paris, je t'aime. . .

Paris has been on my mind all month. The Tour de France is entering its final week and I've continually been visiting the city on celluloid as Cinematheque has devoted the summer to French movies. So really, the perfect summer read for me has been Gillian Tindall's Footprints in Paris: A Few Streets, a Few Lives.

This book is a lovely combination of biography and history as Tindall tries to reconstruct the lives of several of her ancestors (on both sides of her family), who all came to Paris for different reasons, but were inspired and changed by their experiences. Coincidentally they all gravitated towards the famous Latin Quarter and in addition to the personal stories, is the fascinating history of the city itself and in particular, how that tiny part changed architectually during Baron Haussmann's famous changes to the streets and vistas in the 1860s.

We follow her great-great grandfather, Arthur Jacob, who in 1814 walked over a thousand miles from Edinburgh to Paris to continue his medical training. This section is very interesting on the cultural and political changes brought about by the French Revolution and Napoleon, and their effects on the common working people. Then there's Bertie Tindall, who comes to Paris to learn about the medical bookselling industry amidst the craze for the Bohemian. And Maud, a lonely spinster who nursed in France in WWI and found her "secret garden" - a little bit of freedom - in Paris. The book ends with Gillian's own story. Taking the pseudonym "Julia", she escapes to Paris to forget a personal tragedy, having been fascinated by the city since childhood when her unhappy mother would regale her with wistful tales about her youth spent in the sparkling capital.
Tindall has done some fascinating research and she really makes the streets come alive; this book is a must-read if you're planning a future trip to Paris or just want to get lost among its cobblestones for a few hours. It's a book about how a city buries its past and how Tindall unearths hers. For readers who enjoyed Thad Carhart's The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, or the novels of Edward Rutherfurd. Paris, you've seduced me again.

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