by Edith Cody-Rice
If you need a summer tome in which to immerse yourself, this is it. At 809 densely packed pages, this will see you through the summer if you have a job, or through a couple of weeks if you are lolling back at the cottage. Once again, Edward Rutherfurd has tackled a sweeping history of a great city through the interwoven tales of five families. There are the aristocratic de Cynges ; the Blanchards, a merchant family; the Gascons, the workers; the Le Sourds, bandits, showmen and revolutionaries; and the Jacobs, the Jewish family. Through the intertwined tale of these five families, representing the major divisions in French society, Rutherfurd relates the history of this great city. As in his first work Sarum, a story of his hometown of Salisbury, England and his other historical novels, Russka, The Forest, Princes of Ireland, The Rebels of Ireland, London the Novel and New York, the Novel, He uses multiple multi-generational families to bring to life the great sweep of history in each place.
The novel opens in Belle Epoque Paris, in 1875, but flashes back as far as 1261, and forward to 1968. In addition to fascinating vignettes of history, the reader learns information about each family, unknown to the later generations. The de Cynge’s proudly declare that their generations old first name “Roland”, is derived from that of the great friend of Charlemagne and central character in the Song of Roland, whom they claim as an ancestor. The reader learns in flash backs to earlier generations that, in fact, the name derives from a crusader ancestor’s favourite horse.
The reader is swept through the middle ages, to the building of the Eiffel tower and the Statue of Liberty (where the Gascons are employed) to Montmartre, the Moulin Rouge and Place Pigalle (where the Gascons live and work) to the first World War and the transport of French soldiers to the front in Paris taxis. We experience the expulsion of the Jews, the massacre of St Bartholomew, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. We learn that Henry the IV hated bathing and stank and that Louis XIII had a double set of teeth. The families are inserted intimately into each of these historical scenes.
There is a reality and an immediacy to this tale that characterizes all great sagas. Although English, Edward Rutherfurd has French relatives and his locations and stories are based on his experiences visiting his many French cousins.
Paris is a great summer read and, equally fascinating, it relates the history of Paris in a compelling and lively way.
Paris is published by Doubleday Canada