I Dislike Paris in the Summer

There is a true art to writing historical fiction. You've got to strike the right balance between facts and imagination, and that is not easy. One of the writers that I have always thought hit just the right tone is Edward Rutherfurd.
He has written dauntingly long (but fabulously engrossing) books that center on one city or area. Then he delves in and gives you all of the juicy historical details, told from the point of view of a common everyday person, rather than the kings and courtiers that usually crowd into the limelight. And he did it long before Ken Follett looked up to his famous pillars.
The stories spin a web to trap you, making you truly care about what happens to the families you love (or sometimes hate). And the clever historical facts are dropped in benignly, not in a way that shouts, "We're learning something here!"
I've been a huge fan – until recently. I know I said life is too short to read bad books, but even I can get snared by an author that I love. Rutherfurd's most recent book, Paris, was the bait and I fell for it. I wanted to love it, so much so that I kept plowing through it. By the end, I was so frustrated with it that I left the book in a New Orleans hotel. That's a big deal for a woman who treasures all of her other Rutherfurd books.
I don't review bad books, as you know, and this was not a "bad" book in the sense that it was well-written. If you've never read Rutherfurd, you may find it perfectly acceptable. But if you know Rutherfurd, it just isn't up to his usually high marks.
So below I'll list Rutherfurd's books from best to least-best, and then tell you why I love the City of Light, but I dislike Paris.

Sarum

This novel was published 16 years ago and I have probably read it eight times. It is an amazing look at 10,000 years of history in England, centering on a sacred area in the Salisbury Plain that includes Stonehenge. Don't let that huge span of time put you off. This is a fascinating historical saga through the eyes of five families who live, love, and endure during some of the most noted and incredible events. Rather than thinking it's too long, you won't want it to end.

London

This book is a love letter to the city of London. Focusing on 2,000 years of history, beginning with the Roman occupation, London offers adventure and drama, history and mystery, all again viewed from the common people who populated the city from its earliest days. London also highlights a neat trick of Rutherfurd's: He reveals how the city is built the way it is, how certain streets got their name, the hidden highways and byways that have been covered over or built upon, and the geological and geographical oddities that made London what it is today.

New York

I cannot tell you how much I loved this book – and to this day I find myself telling people about the history I learned while reading it. Again, like the other books above, this is far from a dry schoolbook, but a larger-than-life adventure on the island of Manhattan. From American Indians to the Dutch, German, and Irish immigrants who moved in and took over, the people are the focus of this book that entertainingly gives you insight into how New York grew, named its streets and boroughs, and became the amazing city it is today. I've reviewed this one in the past here.

Russka

It has been said that to know a country you must know its people. Rutherfurd obviously took that to heart with this book, a look at close to 2,000 years of Russian history. From roaming ancient tribes, to lowly serfs, to idealistic revolutionaries, Russka showcases the contradictory and contrary people that make up this vast country.

The Forest

To the south of Sarum is a vast wood that has been the scene of an astonishing amount of history. Known as the New Forest, it runs right to the sea that has also been the focus of commerce, war, and invasion. Beginning with the suspicious death of William the Conquerer's son, and running right through the Spanish Armada, Jane Austen, Nelson's war, and more, The Forest gives us insight to the land and sea that make England an amazing island.

The Princes/Rebels of Ireland

These are actually two books, Princes first and then Rebels, that focus on the history of Ireland and its people. These were not two of my very favorites, but they are still good reads from Rutherfurd.

And then there is Paris.

I love the city of Paris so much that I was impatiently anticipating this book. Maybe that makes the disappointment that much greater. The general gist of why I don't like Paris is exactly why I love Rutherfurd's other books so much: The history. In his previous books, Rutherfurd told his tales in chronological order, patiently building your understanding and knowledge of the area and the families. In Paris, he jumps around like a flea, back and forth through time, leaving the reader not only confused but also not really engaged with any particular character. The second major flaw? He leaves out those details that I loved so much: How was this street named? Why was that cathedral built on just that site? Which king caused that monument to be built? How did the windows at La Sainte-Chapelle survive? Instead, it's all Eiffel all the time, as if there are no other sites or settings in Paris worth talking about. How disappointing. So I'll go back to waiting, and hoping that Rutherfurd is back on his game in the next book.

1 comment:

  1. That's too bad. Some of the other books sound great though!

    ReplyDelete