Subtitled “the epic novel of the city of lights”, Paris follows four families throughout the history of Paris. The De Cygne family are nobility, though their status gradually erodes over the course of history, while the Le Sourds are a range of commoners. The other two families are bourgeois and workers, representing the different sectors of French society. Throughout the novel their relationships and statuses change with history right up until the 1960’s.
Unlike the other novels I’ve read by Rutherfurd, Paris focuses on a particular segment of history more so than the others, following a few members of the families more closely from 1875. The books I’d read earlier – Sarum, Russka and London – had started in the past and moved up to the present, more or less.
I’m not really sure I liked the change, to be honest. I can kind of see why it was done, perhaps because the late nineteenth century and onwards is a bit better known, and because it allows Rutherfurd to focus more closely on specific characters for once, but those reasons are exactly why it doesn’t work. I am much more interested in earlier history and Paris certainly doesn’t lack for a fascinating past; what happened to the history before the 13th century? Just because Paris wasn’t properly the capital of a France like the modern one we know until Philip Augustus doesn’t mean that its history, even fictional history, isn’t worth writing.
Secondly, Rutherfurd really doesn’t excel at creating believable characters or writing deeply enough to make the story of them compelling. He’s much more skilled when it comes to the epic big events, creating incidental characters whose only purpose really is to live through the cities’ big moments. When half of the book is devoted to looking more closely at a few characters, this approach no longer works. I rolled my eyes at a lot of the writing here; characters’ judgement of each other is incredibly shallow and unrealistic, for one thing, and things are always told and not shown. I really did not enjoy returning to the more modern strand because I had no interest in who Marie was actually going to marry or whether Luc was going to get his revenge on Louise. I felt that his previous books worked a lot better in this respect; I wanted more historical fiction, less little social dramas that didn’t reflect anything actually about Paris.
It’s not all bad; the chapter that had the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre was actually particularly good because it gave the events a really human element through two children that suffer from the events, and reminded me of why I actually wanted to read the book in the first place. Unfortunately, most of it didn’t live up to my expectations, making this one of the most disappointing books I’ve read yet this year.
I received this book for free for review. All external book links are affiliate links.