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Paris by the Book

Review

Paris by the Book

“We should have stayed in Milwaukee. Or we should have moved to the desert. Jupiter. Some place he’d never find us. Some place we’d never find him.” Leah Eady’s husband of 17 years has disappeared, and she and her two daughters travel to find him. They had become accustomed to his “write-aways” when Robert, a published author of children’s books, would leave for a few days of writing, and then return. He always left a note saying when he’d be home again, and he always came back.

But this write-away was different. He did not leave a note. He did not return. The horror of confronting his possible death or permanent leave-taking from their lives consumes the family. Weeks later, one Saturday morning, his daughter Daphne finds a slip of paper with an airline code in his granola jar. Leah discovers that Robert had purchased four airline tickets to Paris: not Paris, Wisconsin --- there are two towns in Wisconsin named Paris --- but Paris, France.

The background story of PARIS BY THE BOOK, Liam Callanan’s third novel, is surprising and romantic. While they were both in their early 20s, Robert chased Leah from a Milwaukee bookstore after she stole a copy of THE RED BALLOON. When he caught her, he told her she did not need to panic as he had paid for the book, as well as a copy of MADELINE. He thought one Parisian book deserved another. They found a bar and drank beer while she fell in love with his eyes, his shoulders, and his nervous tracing of figures and letters on the table, and she followed him home.

"PARIS BY THE BOOK is told in Leah’s voice, and we readers see that, in many ways, this is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story for adults."

Although Robert was a wonderful father, their marriage became tenuous as he found writing more and more difficult. After his disappearance or death, Leah takes her girls to Paris and uses the itinerary he had planned for them. At the end of the three weeks, events come together like a jigsaw puzzle, and they renew their visas. Leah puts money down on a bookstore and repaints the door a candy apple red. She, Daphne and Ellie begin a life. They miss Robert terribly, but “you can sit in a four-legged chair that’s missing a leg: it just takes more work, more concentration. And Paris, like a pile of books pressed into service, had served as a replacement leg, at least for a while.”

In fragments that are poignant and real, Leah tries to piece together what happened in the last days with Robert. She also realizes that her girls look for their father every day, seeing him out of the corner of their eyes as they cross the street, as they clasp hands with the seven-year-old twins who have become part of their family. Leah understands: “Robert was walking the streets of Paris in their imaginations.” She herself follows men who have some sort of way about them that resembles Robert, wary of being caught, wary of missing him.

The Late Edition, the bookstore that is a charming piece of their new life in Paris, is now Leah’s responsibility. The previous owner had neglected it, and Leah and her daughters begin cleaning shelves and organizing the books. Ellie complains that sorting by genre, then alphabetically by author, takes too long and suggests instead putting the books together by the color of the cover. Daphne thinks that’s stupid. Leah advises organizing the books by country, a method she now recommends to nobody: “Genres get jumbled and disputes abound: should Shakespeare sit by Thomas Mann? Yes, if it’s THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and DEATH IN VENICE.” HAMLET goes next to Kierkegaard? Yes. THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO beside a worn James Clavell’s SHOGUN? Again, yes. Daphne posts little signs among the shelves that invite indignant customers to reshelve books as they see fit, and they do.

The disconnect of the shelves in the bookstore correlates to the disconnect in Leah’s life. Is she a widow or an abandoned wife? Will her daughters trust her parenting judgment even as they desperately want to be a family again? She realizes that “raising kids is about raising yourself as a grown-up.” Her teenage girls, with or without a father, fall in love with the city and become Parisiennes, losing Milwaukee in the process. What has Leah lost?

PARIS BY THE BOOK is told in Leah’s voice, and we readers see that, in many ways, this is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story for adults. She realizes the importance of holding onto shoulders that support, relying on friends, believing in intuition --- markers of well-being and security. And so is living a life of one’s own.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on April 13, 2018

Paris by the Book
by Liam Callanan

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton
  • ISBN-10: 1101986271
  • ISBN-13: 9781101986271