4 out of 4 stars
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A piece of historical fiction with feminist connotations, Seeking Paris by Don Monaco brilliantly revives the pre-World War II atmosphere of Paris, a sanctuary city for a colorful constellation of characters running away from the Nazis’ growing tentacles. Although it primarily focuses on an impossible love story, the novel is also much more than that. The author exquisitely tackles a wide variety of topics. These range from the emancipation of women and war experiences to the meanders of affective memory, the status of fiction, and the reader’s role.
In 1956, Vera Guardic lives with her husband Paul and her daughter Paris in Akron, Ohio. When she is reunited with an old friend, General Charles Bolt, she begins to remember a time of her life when she was a completely different person. A confused witness to her parents’ argument about the past, Paris decides to dig out the truth about her unusual name and the city her mother named her after. In the French capital, she meets two of Vera’s former friends, Denise Novette and Ben Iceland. Both from Denise’s agonizing recollections and from Ben’s painful confessions, Paris gathers bits and pieces of information about Vera’s days in France and learns more about WWII than any history book could have ever taught her.
Don Monaco’s book is an excellent novel of atmosphere. The author does a great job of contrasting the predictability and complacency of Vera’s life in Ohio with the genuine peril she used to face while she was working for the underground resistance movement in Paris. Despite the intermingling temporal lines and the alternate narrative perspectives, the story flows smoothly and takes hold of the readers with an emphasis on the characters’ inner feelings and emotions.
The action of the novel unfolds against the backdrop of major historical events like the Spanish Civil War, the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938), the Fall of France in 1940, the military campaigns in WWII, and even Stalin’s post-war purges and trials. However, the passionate love affair between Vera and Ben takes precedence over the historical context and withstands the test of time. For Ben, Vera never ceases to be a revelation: “He had never known a woman like this. She was more than a woman. She was a sound, a light, an odor, a snake or the web of a giant spider. He was trapped, then lost in the web, waiting and begging to be consumed.” (p. 127) Particularly because they are doomed to remain star-crossed lovers, their story wins the readers’ hearts with its intensity and unexpected outcome.
What I liked most about the novel were the strong female protagonists and its feminist message. Vera is by far the most interesting character in the book. After she barely escapes from Vienna, she needs to forget her former Jewish identity and start a new life in a Parisian café. Vera’s personality acquires new dimensions with each new role she plays. The highly-educated and sophisticated wife of the Sorbonne lecturer Paul Guardic is forced to leave behind her job as a fashion reporter and become a hostess in Le Petit Luxembourg and a liaison for the French resistance movement. A disciple of Simone de Beauvoir’s teachings, she experiences the kind of liberation and empowerment her mentor preaches: “A woman is not born a woman, she becomes a woman.” (p. 109) Years later, her daughter’s journey to France triggers the reawakening of her daring self, which is buried deep under the false domestic happiness of the Ohio housewife. Following into her mother’s footsteps, Paris has an equally strong personality. Her personal development comes as a reflection of her mother’s Parisian freedom: “I have gone to find what you have lost.” (p. 36)
There was nothing I found disagreeable concerning this book. On the contrary, there were many memorable characters and scenes. I could easily picture Vera and Ben in the lively atmosphere at Le Petit Luxembourg or wandering through the streets of Paris. I loved the author’s allusive style and the vivid images he managed to create. Since it is beautifully written and exceptionally edited, I wholeheartedly rate the novel 4 out of 4 stars. Seeking Paris has the advantage of satisfying different reading tastes. I am recommending it to those who want to learn about history in context. The book has plenty of information on WWII and its aftermath, but also on the first stages of the feminist movement. Fans of the romance genre will not be disappointed either. Vera and Ben or Denise and Kurt have the potential of becoming emblematic couples because they defy common stereotypes and expectations. After finishing the novel, you will have a smile on your face and some tears in your eyes.
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