Monday, September 4, 2017

Book Review: 'The Light of Paris' by Eleanor Brown

In "The Light of Paris," Eleanor Brown introduces us to Madeline Spencer, who is unhappily married to Philip, a wealthy and inflexible man. Philip criticizes his wife's weight, orchestrates her activities, and demands her presence at his side at "achingly dull business events." He is also coldly dismissive of her desire to be a painter. The closest she comes to artistic expression is conducting tours at Chicago's Stabler Museum. In addition, Madeleine has a strained relationship with her mother, Simone, who makes snarky comments when Madeline dresses unfashionably, behaves inappropriately, or says something of which her mother disapproves. It is 1999, and Madeleine is close to the breaking point. After an unpleasant verbal exchange with Philip, she takes a trip to Magnolia, Arkansas, the town where she grew up. It is time to take stock of who she is and what she wants.

During her visit to her childhood home, which her mother is planning to sell, Madeleine helps Simone pack up the family's possessions. While rummaging in the attic, Madeline comes across journals written by her late grandmother, Margaret (Margie) Pearce, who had spent an interlude in Paris in 1924 before she got married. In chapters throughout the book, Brown flashes back to Margie's adventures in France. Madeleine discovers that she and her grandmother, who had always seemed stiff and unyielding, actually had a great deal in common. Margie had hoped to become a writer someday, and living in Paris gave her an opportunity to think for herself and do as she pleased.

This is a poignant, occasionally humorous, but fairly predictable tale about financially dependent women who feel constrained to adhere to social norms—marry and bear children, perform acts of charity, and above all, avoid any whiff of scandal. In this pre-feminist work of fiction, it is considered rebellious for Madeline to pick up a paintbrush; for Margie to turn down suitors she does not love; and for either of them to reject a stultifying existence that consists of rounds of shopping, boring luncheons, and interminable committee meetings. Inevitably, our heroines meet men who consider them beautiful and desirable, Margie is besotted with the beauty and lure of Paris in the Jazz Age, and Madeleine uncovers Margie's secrets, inducing her to reassess the choices she has made. There are lovely descriptions of Parisian landmarks, gorgeous sunsets, and passionate liaisons. Unfortunately, too many one-dimensional characters--some of whom are as casual and relaxed as Simone is strait-laced--occasionally florid figurative language (“his hair was the color of burnt caramel, but as he moved his head in the sunlight, it lit up a dozen different colors--strands of corn silk, of strawberry blond, of deep chestnut”) and the clich├ęs of formulaic fiction weaken this tale of a grandmother and granddaughter who long for the freedom to pursue their dreams.

Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.