Joanna Biggar, That Paris year (Guest post)

When I received That Paris year via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program, I got the sudden attack of the guilts! How was I to review this book alongside all the other books I wanted to read? And then the thought struck me! My daughter, Hannah (aka Wayfaring Chocolate), is a reader, was an exchange student (albeit in the USA), and had recently been to and fallen in love with Paris. Perhaps she might like to read and review it  – and, yes, she would (with not too much arm-twisting). I posted a version of that review, as required, on LibraryThing, and then suggested we post it here too. She did some small revisions and … here it is … Thanks, Hannah!

Wayfaring Chocolate’s review of That Paris year, by Joanna Biggar

That Paris year, book cover

Book cover (Image: Courtesy: Alan Squire Publishing)

That Paris year weaves together the story of five American female college students on exchange at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1962. There is something dream-like about the narration of the girls’ lives as it is J.J., one of the five, who recounts the story of each, through her own memories, tales the others have told her and, at times, her own surmising about what may or may not have happened in their lives. It is not that J.J. is an unreliable narrator, but that the novel reads in the same way that life is experienced – as a sometimes clear, sometimes hazy pinning together of what we ourselves remember and feel, what others have told us of their own lives, and the threads we create in our minds to tie the two together. Moreover, this novel shows how sometimes, in pulling together our own and others’ stories, we have the potential to blur the boundaries of our selves:

Still, I wondered at it, wondered where she had disappeared when she recited Eve’s thoughts as if they were her own.

Each of the five girls followed in this novel is initially set out as markedly different. Yet for all their varied degrees of attractiveness, confidence, studiousness and self-awareness, ultimately each girl seems focused on one thing above all else: the quest for love, sex, and a life partner. It is this that weakened the novel a little for me as, while I myself am a female university student in my early twenties with a deep love of Paris who wouldn’t mind not being single, I felt suffocated by the constant idea thrumming through this novel that a man is what will, ultimately, define me as a young woman.

The novel certainly deals with other aspects of women’s coming-of-age, such as coping with parents’ divorce, class dichotomies, living in a foreign country, and navigating the limits – or limitlessness, it seems at times – of friendship. I only wish some of these narrative threads had been fleshed out in more detail. Such issues are as relevant today as they were during the novel’s 1962 setting, and the evocative writing of Joanna Biggar ensures that the reader is cognisant of this. The political tension between America and France at this point in history, the insecurities one character (Gracie) faces when comparing her homeliness with the long-legged grace of her statuesque friends, even the novelty of putting on an American Thanksgiving dinner in Paris – these are concepts that Biggar tackles with humour, grace, and a fair degree of sympathy.

For example, even when Gracie’s dogged belief that her intelligence is a curse preventing men from liking her made me want to reach into the book and shake her by the shoulders, I couldn’t help but feel both sympathy and understanding for her in the following:

By trusting me, by believing there was a place of revelation – Paris – where possession of all womanly secrets was obtained, she had simply been delivered into another of Dante’s circle. In only a few short weeks, she already felt doomed … by being short, ill-dressed, and homely in the world capital of style.

One thing I did particularly enjoy was that there were times during the reading when I felt that all I had to do was close my eyes to believe myself back in a smoky Parisian cafe, or perhaps on a beach in Avignon with the wind rising, or sitting by the Seine watching stylish Parisian women strut past me. Biggar has a talent for evoking a Paris, and a France, that is both familiar yet not clichéd, and this was something I particularly took pleasure in. There were also moments when particular lines jumped out at me as if they were my own, such as when one character tells another that:

Maybe it’s just that you have a way of listening like you’re hearing more than I even know I’m saying […] Jocelyn listens too, so much so that sometimes I think she can play back to me what I’ve said. Maybe she doesn’t hear in quite the same way.

Haven’t we all had people in our lives who, we know, implicitly “get” us, and others with whom conversations only ever take place on the surface? I think Biggar captures the way in which both types of friends are valuable in different ways. In fact, you could read her novel as a study of different types of friendship (and, as I’ve mentioned above, how for some women friendships are apparently mediated through and in reference to men).

Yet despite my slight reservations with the novel, I would still recommend it for anyone who has had, or wants, a Paris Year of their own. This novel brought back memories of my own time in the City of Lights and, for that, I am grateful.

Joanna Biggar
That Paris year
Bethesda: Alan Squire Publishing, 2010
ISBN: 9780982625101

(Review copy courtesy Alan Squire Publishing, via LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program)

16 thoughts on “Joanna Biggar, That Paris year (Guest post)

  1. Dear Sue, I loved this review. So did Hannah your daughter write it or was it joint? Paris has been one of those things for me. My grandparents and Mom lived there for a year when she was very young (12) and I have heard those stories forever. I finally visited Paris for the first time when I was 29 and promptly fell in love and again I was there just last year. Never enough time, a week is hardly enough to soak up the city, to get lost in the language and to answer every pining of my heart with everything it wants to do. Someday, I will spend more time in Paris – it seems this book will just make it me pine for it more :)!

    • Thanks muchly Farnoosh. She wrote it so she’ll be pleased you liked it. I’ve only been to Paris once and that was in 1980 for a week, so I have a lot of catching up to do… So many places, eh, just like so many books! I love the cover of the book…

  2. Great idea for the guest blogger to do your work Sue! And congratulations Hannah on a blog post well done. I, of course, yearn for Paris at an almost physical level. I’ve probably become too addicted to reading Paris blogs to have time to read a novel. C’est la vie, n’est-ce pas?

    • Plus ça change, is my response! Yes, I thought I was clever to find a solution to my predicament. Not sure how far I can push the friendship though. If you’d like to borrow the book – ie if you do think you have time – let me know. Am not sure when I’ll get to it.

  3. How refreshing to see a mother-daughter review. I enjoyed it.

    For female Francophiles ( count me in that legion), this looks like a very good read. And the point that Hannah makes in reaction to the message that men ultimately define women, is a good one. Too often the Parisian romantic cliche is a myth that is foisted on us and perpetuated unthinkingly.

  4. While this book is not one I would probably seek out, you have captured the essence of the “Parisian experience” of it and made it sound an appealing read. I suspect that only an American woman could have written this book (oops! – slapped wrists there).

    Whispering Gums – Wayfaring Chocolate – I am trying to tease out synergies and connections other than the familial (but failing at the moment)

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful review and conversation about “That Paris Year” from fellow francophiles “Down Under.” I loved the idea that Hannah and her mother both had a hand in this, too! Meanwhile, life does not end after Paris for these “girls,” so if you want to know where they go from there, look for the sequel, “Melanie’s Song.”

    Joanna Biggar
    P.S. From my window I look out onto a California hillside of gumtrees, 20th century imports from Australia.

    • Why thanks Joanna … how lovely of you to pop by and comment. We will look out for the sequel.

      Where in California are you … we lived in Yorba Linda for 3 years (when Hannah was a littl’un) and felt not too far from home with all the gums around.

      • I live in the Oakland hills overlooking San Francisco Bay. This, and many other parts of California, are replete with eucalyptus, as we call them. When it rains, as it is now, the hills are wild with their fragrance. Rumor has it that many of them landed here because the California writer, Jack London, imported them to his ranch north of the city in Sonoma County, mistakenly thinking they could be harvested for timber.
        I’ve been thinking about Hannah’s comments about the dilemma of my “girls” in Paris and their entanglements with men. She is exactly right, of course, and it was one of the issues so embedded in the culture of that time that they each had to work out. (Do you see “Mad Men” in Australia? It is also a glimpse of exactly that time period). And the problems of self-identity/love/relationships are some they all need to work out. Hence a sequel. It’s wonderful to have such insightful comments from readers, though, so thanks.

        • Thanks for responding Joanna. Nice part of California I reckon, though I’ve only made a few brief visits to San Francisco.

          And thanks too for respecting and thinking about Hannah’s comments. I take your point re Mad Men. I have only seen Series 1, which I loved, but Hannah has seen most of it to date (I think). It certainly shows the worst side of the 60s … particularly from the point of view of women’s role and position.

  6. Joanna, thank you so much for popping by to comment on my mum’s blog/my guest post! I’m a little bit in awe to think of the author reading and then pondering over the thoughts of little old me! 🙂 I did think “Ah!” when I read your comment about the time period/Mad Men-ish tone to the girls-and-their-aspect of your novel, as that does help me understand my reaction to it a bit more. As mum has hinted, I’m a pretty dedicated viewer of Mad Men and find the sexual politics of that time fascinating. Perhaps, because I’ve grown up in an era where I’m simultaneously bombarded with the idea that I should be an independent and that I need to find a husband pronto, I’m rather thrown about by anything to do with this part of life.

    I definitely will keep an eye out for the sequel! Oh, and I love the scent of eucalyptus. I love that that smell can feel like “home” to you and to me, despite the fact we live in different countries 🙂

  7. Pingback: You, Too, Can Learn From My Mistakes - Wayfaring Chocolate

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