This book wasn’t what I expected.
It begins with the definition of the French word flâneur: a man with the money and time to wander aimlessly around the city, taking in the spectacle of it all. Women of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were, of course, excluded from the activity of aimless wandering…although not all women submitted to this exclusion.
Elkin’s book is about these women — writers, photographers, painters, directors — but it’s also about Elkins herself, a writer from the suburbs of New York City who moved to Paris, fell in love with the city, and determined never to leave. She may wander around other cities, including London and Venice and Tokyo, but her footsteps always take her back to the City of Light.
As Elkins strolls the streets of these different places, and as she examines the lives of the women who strolled these same streets before her, I found that Elkins and the women she writes about aren’t the only characters in Flâneuse. The cities become characters, too.
If I had to describe Flâneuse, I’d say it’s just like a walk I took during a study-abroad trip to Italy nearly fifteen years ago. I wandered the streets of Rome under the baking summer sun, looking at people and buildings, staring at a pair of high heels in a shop window that I couldn’t buy because the store was closed for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, eating cantaloupe and prosciutto at a sidewalk café.
Elkins took me on a walk through cities I’ve never been to, introduced me to women I’ve never met, clued me in to stories I don’t know. Flâneuse was a meander, and I loved it.