‘Paris by the Book’ is a map of the city lights

Monday, April 9, 2018 - 3:32pm

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I’ve only been to Paris once, and I wish I could savor the way the city smelled and tasted and looked and felt — running all through me like an electric shock. If technology was advanced enough that I could have saved all the senses like a picture — congruent with my memories of berets and croissants and cubed cheese, or sweet wine in basement bars — I would never have to go back.

So maybe it’s better that the immediate feeling of Paris is ephemeral now that I’m three years removed from the overseas adventure that changed my life. That way I know that at some point, I’ll get to go back.

That being said, I’ve been searching for a way to have my own Paris while I’m here in the middle of Mich. and know I won’t be going back for a while. “Paris by the Book,” Liam Callanan’s third novel, did just that for me from its very first words.

The novel follows Leah Eady, wife of Robert Eady and mother to two daughters, who has been sleeping on a Parisian dream for her entire life. When her eccentric novelist husband vanishes abruptly, he leaves behind a string of obscure clues along with three plane tickets to Paris. In hopes of finding and reconnecting with her husband, Leah and the girls go to Paris for the very first time. Upon their arrival to Paris, Leah is faced with her husband’s unsettling and unfinished manuscript, a bookstore with a red door and a series of life altering discoveries — all lying before her in the cobblestone Parisian streets.

I was a skeptic when it came to fiction about Paris (especially romantic fiction), due to its track record of being superfluous, predictable and cliché, so I picked up this novel with a hesitation one can only describe as a sort of preconceived judgement. I’d like to apologize for my doubts prior to reading the book, because I was certainly wrong.

Callanan brings the reader on an emotional journey through the streets of Paris; its coveted and quaint bookstores, yellow awning-covered cafés, old bridges and idiosyncrasies are things only known to someone who discovered the city by foot. As a reader, we get all these things without ever leaving our homes. The story feels at once fresh and new, albeit anachronistic — paying homage to the sweet, old-fashioned feeling of Paris in contrast to a rapidly modernizing America.

Despite dealing with themes of suffering and loss that is felt by the three Eady women throughout the text, Callanan has an innate ability to make even the worst circumstances seem irrevocably light — no matter the challenges before them, the girls forge on. The text is at once a charming story of family and a page-turning mystery, making it impossible to put down. This dichotomy is what makes “Paris by the Book” such a wonderful read.

Often times, novels that adhere to one genre or type are lost in the sea of others that are incredibly similar. However, by being both romantic fiction and a mystery, “Paris by the Book” marries two completely different genres in a beautiful way. This can be seen as a metaphor for Paris itself — a romantic city filled with hope and love, while also being clandestine and bubbling with secrets.

Callanan’s poignant descriptions of the streets of France — between wine, cappuccino and the pages of books — are my favorite pages of the story. Because the Eady ladies take over an old bookstore in Paris to sustain themselves in order to start a new life, much of the novel is told hand-in-hand with literary reference and allegory. All of the Eady women, their close friends and, clearly, their writer father are avid readers — passionate and committed to their favorite books, authors and characters.

There’s nothing better than getting lost in a book that focuses on reading, and there are very few things better than reading and having central characters that feel the same way as me, allowing me to better relate to and understand them. “Paris by the Book” is inherently addicting, thrilling and literary in more ways than one. Its descriptions of bookstores and book re-arranging and literature are nothing short of sexy — fitting well between colorful descriptions of Paris. Both book lovers and those sleeping on dreams of Paris will revel in the pages of Callanan’s book.

The text truly invites the reader in to fall in love with not only Paris, but Leah and her children as well. Their genuine and vulnerable qualities make them relatable and likeable. Readers will be just as invested in the narrative of Leah’s journey to discovering the truth about her husband as they will about her journey to re-discovering herself.

For those of us who love to read, love Paris (a moveable feast, as Hemingway said) and love characters as relatable as Leah and her girl, “Paris by the Book” is a perfect match. I wonder sometimes about the kinds of books that exhaust us, exasperate us and make us emotional — the kinds of books we’d like to flip over and begin again.

Dancing along the margins, pretty, pink in the face and elegant, I remember dancing down the Parisian streets in Dec. 2015, on my first visit to the city of lights. Maybe it’s in our DNA as book lovers and hopeless romantics to fall in love with a text — especially one about Paris, romance or books — or maybe it’s just the power of Callanan’s prose.

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Paris by the Book

Liam Callanan

Penguin Random House

April 3, 2018