Of all the cities in the world to visit, none is as pressure-filled as Paris (from my vantage point, at least). I’m heading there for a weekend and it’s been a decade since I last went so I picked up this collection of essays, promising “Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light.” I love the concept of this and I have the NYC-equivalents on my TR list (Goodbye to All That & Can’t Say Goodbye). I didn’t necessarily expect a useful travelogue but I thought it would be a sort-of pep rally for me, reading about everyone’s stories and what spoke to them in the city.
You can feel the stifling weight of the expectations of all these authors. There are so many similarities that the compendium grows repetitive. They all want Jazz Age Paris, even if not all of them admit it. None have mastered the language but they try to speak it anyway. They all receive a response of, “Speak English, please,” and react in varying degrees of offense and gratitude. They would all like to know the secret ritual of chic and jaunty scarf-tying.
I’m generalizing, of course, and there were a few stories of triumph (one particularly sexy and romantic, and another more quietly impactful). But, for the most part, this was a group of women with a Very Particular Idea of Paris, one they needed to grapple with and exorcize and extract meaning from. It’s understandable. After all, it is Paris. And while we pretend to be above it all, I think we all secretly hope we’ll land in CDG and emerge from the terminal possessing that je ne sais quoi. That the scarf we looked doofy in moments earlier will suddenly fall flatteringly into place and Parisians will ask us for directions. “I’m so sorry,” they’ll exclaim, “I thought you were French!” Ultimately, this anthology left me feeling more empathetic than envious of the Parisians therein–specters, projections, and supporting characters to all of these determined writers. I would wince whenever an author touched upon cultural rudeness or grumpiness. Who could blame them?
I ultimately think A Paris All Your Own would have benefited from more diversity of experience (and I was shocked that some of them had written about the city before they ever went there, though I appreciate how privileged a take that is from someone living in a city with an airport hub and no children). I was reminded of a film that undertook a similar endeavor, Paris je t’aime. There is a beautiful chapter starring the genius Margo Martindale as a postal worker from Denver who travels to Europe for the first time. Remembering her character’s earnestness and her quiet understated epiphany made me appreciate this anthology a bit more. So watch that before reading, should you dare.