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Shadows of Paris

August 24, 2016

A love letter to Paris disguised as a novella, Eric Lehman’s slim volume entitled Shadows of Paris begins in the shadow of Notre Dame and ends with a view of rough, cobbled streets and the banks of the Seine.

Appearing unexpectedly in my mailbox at Kenyon, the book is also a kind of love letter because it’s written by one of my former students who has become a writer. That makes me very proud, however little I might have had to do with it. So I am far from an unprejudiced reader.

Let me tell you about the story. There’s this guy William who doesn’t speak much French but has taken a job teaching in Paris on the spur of the moment. There’s some mystery about why he is so unmoved by his surroundings, spending his days at a school near Les Halles and his evenings in an apartment on Rue Tiquetonne. When his boss gives him an assignment to start reading some of the great works of French literature in translation, he begins to find “the keys to Paris, the keys to literature, the keys to life.”

And there’s this girl, Lucy, who works in a bookshop specializing in English translations. William and Lucy meet and feel an instant attraction; his first reaction is “She was another man’s wife, for Keats’ sake.” They reveal their darling originality to each other, like when William explains that he says “for Keats’ sake” because his father used to say “for Pete’s sake” and “at some point I asked who is this Pete? And why are we worried about his state of being? So, I changed it to a more appropriate homophone, the poet who died so young.”

William and Lucy spend a few weeks dancing around the fact that she has a husband and then they find out all about the checkered parts of each others’ pasts and fall in love. That part’s predictable. What’s fun are the glimpses of Paris you get along the way—perhaps especially if you are predictable as a tourist.

The first (and so far the only) time I went to Paris, we stayed in an apartment near Les Halles and the first meal we had in what we thought was a real sidewalk café was at a place called Au Pied de Cochon, which Lucy’s husband, when the three of them have a meal together, describes as “for tourists.” We remember it as the place where we learned the French for “the bill,” which is “la addition,” and which you have to ask for before they bring it, so polite are the waiters about letting you sit and watch the people go by on the sidewalk for as long as you like.

If you’ve ever been to Paris, you’ll recognize something; William and Lucy travel all around the city. As William’s boss continues to talk to him about French literature and Lucy continues to wander around the city with him, William opens himself up to more of French life, until finally he says “as we crossed the Seine at the pedestrian Pont des Arts, heading towards the Louvre, I actually stopped and spun around, taking in the grandeur of the city.”

While William falls in love with Lucy and with Paris, readers of Shadows of Paris will enjoy being there with them. And at the end, William is, like the readers, longing from afar for Parisian sights and sounds.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2016 7:45 am

    But now I can never read it, having conceived an unalterable loathing for Will for describing Lucy not as “married,” but as “another man’s wife.”

    • August 28, 2016 12:57 pm

      Well, I guess one person’s phrase can be another person’s pet peeve. I didn’t react to that, particularly.

  2. August 30, 2016 11:53 am

    How wonderful it must be to read a good book written by a former student! You must be pretty proud.

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