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 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.
That Paris year
Bethesda: Alan Squire Publishing, 2010
(Review copy courtesy Alan Squire Publishing, via LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program)