A Review of Liam Callanan’s “Paris by the Book”
The Disappearing Act
Paris, France, is often viewed as a magical place in fiction, and with good reason. As the hangout of Hemingway and Fitzgerald among others, it is a place where a great deal of English and French literature has been born. Heck, there’s even a popular English language bookstore called Shakespeare and Company (and I know of a guy who worked there and — surprise, surprise — published a book about his time spent there) which just goes to show how popular the place is among readers. You can now add Liam Callanan’s marvelous Paris by the Book to the small mountain of French literature written by Anglophone Americans. The story is one of disappearances. Leah Eady’s husband vanishes into thin air one day by going out of his house in Milwaukee and never returning. Both Leah and Robert, the missing husband, had a hankering for all things Parisian: Robert loves (or loved, past tense) the Madeline books by Ludwig Bemelmans, while Leah takes a hankering to the French film The Red Balloon. (And, it must be said, its companion book.)
Thus, after a series of clues following his disappearance, Leah — refusing to believe that her husband perished somehow — and their two teenaged daughters, Ellie and Daphne, wind up living in Paris, believing that Robert is there. Much searching takes place, but not before Leah winds up owning and running an English language bookstore that specialises in dead authors. Essentially, Leah, Ellie and Daphne become good Parisian citizens, taking part in various tragicomic adventures as they scour the city for clues as to where the missing dad/husband may have gone. However, Leah winds up becoming friendly with a black American man. Can romance be far behind? Can Leah get over the fact that her husband may not be coming back? And so this tale unfolds.
Paris by the Book is, of course, a sopping love letter to the titular city. It is portrayed as grimy and ancient, but there’s an undercurrent of eclectic people who give the place character. It is also very much a book about literature and film, which I’ll get to in more detail in a moment. (Plus, the Robert-Leah romance begins when the former discovers that the latter has walked out of a bookstore without paying for her copy of The Red Balloon.) It is also simply a crackling good tale — one that has its shares of tragedies and missed opportunities. Callanan tells the story from Leah’s perspective, and I would say that he nails the female voice — a woman’s exhaustion at being a single parent, the feeling of being lovelorn for her missing husband despite their growing differences before the disappearance — quite perfectly. In fact, I had to check that this wasn’t a semi-autobiographical tale, because the tone is quite conversational and seems to cut too close to the feeling of being real.
If Paris by the Book has a problem, it is — a bit of a spoiler is here, so maybe jump a paragraph if you plan on reading this book — that it never fully reveals the reasons why Robert left, aside from divulging some hints of a fractured relationship towards the end of the novel. And, of course, we never really do get a picture why Leah would still be in love with her husband after the abandonment. Overall, though, I found Paris by the Book to be eerily similar to John Green’s young adult novel Paper Towns, which also featured a disappearing love interest. It’s just that the former is more targeted to adult readers, but still retains the feeling of being magical that Green’s novel mostly captures.
Because this is a book about art and its effects on the human condition, be prepared for a lot of name-dropping — books are mentioned that may serve as a jumping off point for deepening one’s reading, which is always a plus in my book. (Plus, Callanan gives a shout out to two Canadian authors — Carol Shields and Alice Munro — so this Canuck gives Callanan many laurels for doing so.) Essentially, Paris by the Book is a thoughtful book about the impact of films and books on us as human beings, and how we carry around pieces of them in the detritus of our lives. In a way, the narratives of the works of fiction that are brought up in this book are mirrors to the characters’ lives. In a sense, Leah is liberated by many red balloons and floats up among the city by novel’s end — not literally, of course, but the balloons would be symbolized by the friendships she has made in the city that have carried her through.
However, if you’re not looking for quite that much depth in your fiction, Paris by the Book also works as a straight-ahead read — one that I suspect women will be enraptured by, given the preponderance of female characters in this book. It’s a bit of a page turner once you get going, as its distinctly European flavour is quite intoxicating and charming. There are niggling things, such as one character bouncing back rather quickly from a case of meningitis (which can kill), but, overall, the novel sustains. I came to like these characters, despite their obvious flaws, as they seemed good natured enough. There’s a melancholic tow to the book, but it’s a kind of happy-sadness. The women in this novel prove their resilience and their ability to adapt to massive changes in their lives, and that gives the work courage, heft and assuredness.
Put it this way, if you’re looking for a great story, then look no further. But if you’re looking to go off the deep end with your fiction in terms of thematics, you might be well pleased by the quality of the book. I wouldn’t peg it quite as literary fiction, because there’s a breezy style to the writing, but I imagined it being made into a small, art-house film. Paris by the Book is a charming novel about fractures in relationships and the lengths we’ll go to to repair those relationships, and it’s a great lazy Sunday afternoon read. Anyone who likes books about books will surely get their fill here. This is magic almost at its very best, and if you don’t shed a tear by the time the covers are closed for the final time, you don’t have an ounce of the French in your soul. This book is, simply put, wonderful stuff. Plus s’il vous plait.
Liam Callanan’s Paris by the Book will be published by Dutton on April 3, 2018.
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