Monday, September 2, 2013

Paris by Edward Rutherfurd

Paris - Edward Rutherfurd
Rating: 4/5

I received a bound galley copy of this book in a goodreads giveaway, which will have no effect on the objectivity of this review.

In order to do a proper review, I would have to read this monolith again. I really had no idea what I was getting into when I started it. I thought I'd experienced historical fiction before, but Rutherfurd's tome needs its own category. "Super historical fiction" or something. It took me four months to get through this book, which is probably a record for me. Usually I am either in or out, but I was determined to experience this book.

I dare say a personal familiarity with Paris; and an excellent memory would have benefited my enjoyment of this story, but I have neither. At times I felt like I was getting a walking tour of the city, but blindfolded, with only a guide to describe the scenery. I had difficulty picturing a lot of places that were mentioned in passing, and I felt like every significant place in Paris history was mentioned, whether it added to the story or not. Locations where plot happened were easier to imagine, but the rest felt like obligatory place-name-dropping. This may be enjoyable for someone who has actually been to Paris, but for me it was occasionally tedious.

The story follows several families in Paris through about 300 years of history, up until the late 1960s. Well, "follows" is not exactly an accurate term, since the narrative jumps back and forth through time and between characters. I had some difficulty with this. My memory is poor, and it was hard to remember which characters did what when. I assume it was arranged this way because Rutherfurd had a plan regarding when key information about how the families' histories were intertwined would be revealed. This trade-off of clarity for drama might give a reader with a better memory less trouble. The jumping around also made it harder for me to stay involved in the story -- it took me awhile to get situated in each setting, and I found that setting changing rather too shortly after I really started to get involved in the plot. So it was jarring. And the long chapters made it difficult to keep reading -- each chapter requires a leap to another time and set of characters, and a big chunk of time if you want to get through it all at once. I personally don't like putting a book down in the middle of a chapter, but I made do with section breaks.

The characters in this book were fairly well delineated and developed, but it took the whole book to really get to know any of them, since there were so many and their stories were told in chunks separated by long narrative interruptions. I quite liked Marie, but it was difficult to become entirely emotionally engaged with any of them for some reason. 

The plots in this book were excellently woven and varied, intertwined with the most important events in Paris' history during the periods covered. There were family grudges, murders, political intrigues, wars, romances, infidelities, tragedies, triumphs...nearly every plot point you could imagine, and all brought off with great plausibility. Though it was difficult to rejoin the story whenever I picked the book up from a long pause, eventually I was always drawn back in.

Rutherfurd's writing style is graceful and pleasing, his words setting a tone rather than being the focus of the work. It leant itself well to its story-telling. 

This is a book I would like to read again some day, but it does require a big commitment, so I am not sure I will ever get around to it. I am looking forward to reading this author's novel about London, which I think I will enjoy, being more familiar with British history than French. 

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