DECEMBER READING: PARIS by Edward Rutherfurd
Well, there is no doubt that this is a very big book - covering 700 years of that iconic city, and trying to do so in 800 closely written pages. Wow. Big. And apparently this is one of his shorter novels. Unsurprisingly 800 pages is not enough to incorporate a detailed and complete history of the City of Light. I expect the author's greatest challenge was what to put in and what to leave out. Who runs the city of Paris also runs France, so leadership is the dominant thread through the book, forming the background to the characters and their stories. So Louis XIV and XVI, Napoleon, the Gestapo, and the Catholic Church as well as the leaders post-French Revolution feature strongly. Paris is also known for its iconic architecture - the story of the Eiffel Tower features. The reader learns a lot about the geographical layout of the city from its early Ancient Rome days and the continuity of such structures as Notre Dame, the Louvre, Sacre Coeur, the main roadways, and above all the the river Seine. This is all fascinating stuff, and the maps at the beginning and end of the book - one of Paris in the Middle Ages, and the other of Paris in the late 1890s - show how this city has grown and moved outward, yet still retaining its core.
Against this historic and cultural detail, the author has woven the stories of a number of families ranging from the aristocratic de Cygne family, the working class Le Sourd and Gascon families, the more bourgeois Blanchard and Renard families, to the Jewish family Jacob. The family tree at the beginning of the book is absolutely invaluable because the author tells the story in the most confusing way possible jumping through the centuries, back and forth in time, introducing different members from the families at different times. The book opens in the late nineteenth century and next chapter we are in the thirteenth century, next chapter a bit later in the nineteenth, then to the fourteenth century and so it goes on. Each chapter introduces new people and plot lines, then the next chapter has other family members meeting new family members of a previously introduced family. Aaagh, gets very confusing!
But, despite all the trickery, this is a very readable and enjoyable book. 800 pages whizzed by, as did 700 years. This is a city that continues to be very high on my list of places to go, and this book has only increased my desire to do so. The author clearly loves the city, but I would very much have liked for there to have been more about the French Revolution - after all this is where much of the modern history of France and Paris itself all started. The chapter on the Terror of 1794 was very good, but I get the feeling the author assumes that all readers have prior and detailed knowledge of the mechanics of the Revolution of 1789, which I don't believe would be the case.