The Emperor of Paris by C.S. Richardson – book review

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by Edith Cody-Rice


The Emperor of Paris (3)
 
 The key to The Emperor of Paris, which in the guise of a novel, presents the poetry of small lives lived, is in the intorductory quote by Charles Baudelaire from The Painter of Modern Life (1863).

   “The observer is a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes. The lover of life makes the whole world into his family just as the lover of the fair sex creates his from all the lovely women he has found, from those that could not be found, and those who are impossible to find, just as the picture-lover lives in an enchanted world of dreams painted on canvas.”

C.S. Richardson is a lover of life, and not just any life, but the lives of ordinary people, small people some would say, whose stories are as compelling as those of any celebrity. Ostensibly the story is the prequel to a love story which is never fully told, but whose preparation is possibly more interesting than the love story will be. It is a dreamy watercolour rendering of the lives of two generations of three families: their successes, disappointments and tragedies and the two damaged children who grow up to meet and love in a Parisian park. But Richardson delights in the small events that make up a life – the neighbours in the boulangerie lineup, offering advice and gossip; the art restorer in the Louvre, who is a minor character but with her own story to tell.

The story flickers among the families of Boulangerie Notre Dame, whose son collects books but cannot read, the Atelier Normand, whose beautiful daughter Isabeau suffers a disfiguring accident in childhood and the bookseller Fournier and his son, whose passive intervention at the bookstall ulimately sets in motion the wheels of romance. It makes you remember your first love and the brief intangible moments that remain with you for the rest of your life. There is a touch of the ephemeral about this novel, but a starkness too, as Emile Notre Dame, proprietor of the Boulangerie Notre Dame, is destroyed by the First World War battlefield of Verdun, returning to live out his life in the basement of his bakery.

This story is delicate, painterly in fact, its language jewel-like. It has the sensibility of a visual work of art – a Christmas choice for the romantics in your family.