I remember reading Rutherfurd’s first historical epic, Sarum, and being swept away by the story of Salisbury, England and its families through the centuries. Since then, Rutherfurd has written several more of these historical novels, about Russia, Ireland, London and New York.
Rutherfurd has developed a sort of formula for these novels. He takes a few families and follows their generations through the centuries. The families tend to be from varying levels of society, so that their stories can give a fuller view of life in the particular location of the story. Different family members will be involved in some way with key events in the location’s history, and quite often the families have interactions or relationships with each other throughout the history.
In this book, the families are the highborn de Cygnes; the Le Sourds, pitted against the de Cygnes again and again throughout the ages; the laborer/artisan Gascons; the commerce-minded Blanchards; the Jewish Jacobs. For some reason not clear to me, Rutherfurd has chosen to skip around in time, rather than follow a chronological order. Not only do you jump from one set of characters to another from chapter to chapter, you may jump forward or backward in time.
This jumping around makes it difficult to develop the characters. Just as you’re starting to get a picture of one set of characters, the chapter ends. I suppose that’s the tradeoff for a novel that spans centuries and that focuses on the history of the place. The place becomes the protagonist and all the humans become side characters. Well, OK, if that’s the deal, then I can accept it if I love the treatment of the protagonist. But I can’t say that I did. Paris did not come alive for me in this book.
The sweeping sociopolitical events and movements in French/Parisian history are handled in very broad strokes and in a labored and pedantic way. You get a clue as to the style right from the get-go, when the history of the Paris Commune is given to us by way of a turgid monologue delivered by a mother to her son. I know this background has to be provided somehow, but the way this read, I could imagine Rutherfurd’s early draft saying “[insert history here].” I couldn’t help but compare it to Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, where there is also a lot of historical information that is told by way of conversations, or one character telling another the history. I had just been listening to the audiobook and a character, Jack Shaftoe, tells his horse (really) some fairly lengthy history and it was both entertaining and educational; a huge contrast to this book.
Interspersed with the broad-brush historical descriptions, Rutherfurd focuses in on some selected events in a more personal way. One of these is his focus on the building of the Eiffel Tower, and Thomas Gascon’s work on both it and the Statue of Liberty that M. Eiffel designed and Parisians built as a gift to the United States. This was probably the most dynamic and lively part of the book, and Thomas Gascon the most dimensional character.
Unfortunately, that only tends to emphasize how paper-thin the characterization is in nearly all the other cases. People behave in ways that Rutherfurd lays no foundation for; presumably it’s just convenient for his plot. The characters seem like dolls that Rutherfurd uses to act out his stories, not like real people. I just didn’t care about any of them. That became painfully clear in the middle of the book, when there is a long chapter about a love/social position triangle. I wasn’t invested in the characters, because they hadn’t been brought to life. The same is true for almost the entire 20th century, when Rutherfurd inexplicably plunges the story into a ridiculous soap opera, complete with love triangles, an adoptee searching for her birth family, sexual intrigue and so on.
What’s more, most of this could have been placed almost anywhere. Paris is just window dressing. When a character goes to work as a model for Coco Chanel, we read virtually nothing about her work or Chanel. In other words, our protagonist, the city of Paris, is depicted as superficially as the human characters. An exception to this is when we arrive at World War II. Suddenly, the story becomes very Parisian and far less superficial. It’s a shame the reader has to wait until the last 100 pages of the book for this transformation.
It’s disappointing that Rutherfurd managed to write such a lackluster book about one of the world’s most fascinating cities. I would have given the book 1.5 stars, rounded down to 1 star, but because the World War II story was good, I’m rounding up to 2 stars.