Literary Notes #19: The Romanticizing of Paris and Parisian Women

Since I’ve arrived, I’ve read a few books about life in Paris. These range from funny to melodramatic to fully ridiculous. Here’s some reviews of the books I’ve read recently.

The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious-And Perplexing-City by David Lebovitz

While Lebovitz thoroughly loves Paris, he’s not so taken with the city to be blind to its quirks and frustrations. His essays on learning the proper etiquette for eating vegetables, dealing with the strikes, learning to dress like a Parisian, and navigating a tiny apartment are funny. They’re also astute observations of the challenges one faces when living here – especially as a North American. I do think he’s given to a bit of exaggeration here and there but I have really enjoyed reading his book, I’ve learned a lot and would recommend it to anyone.

Paris the Biography of a City by Colin Jones

This history of Paris is fabulous. It’s a tome at over 600 pages and I haven’t finished it but am enjoying my read. At the very beginning Jones gives a fascinating list of aspects of the city. I found this amazing and am going to include part of it.  When just looking at Paris, it seems like just another city but it’s useful to think in smaller terms. For instance, Paris can be seen in the story of numbers:

  • number of squares: 670
  • number of streets and boulevards: 5,975
  • length of public highways: 5,975 kilometres
  • number of municipal buildings: 318
  • number of fountains: 536
  • number of public monuments: 40,000
  • number of shops: 62,546
  • number of buses: 4,364
  • number of bus routes: 275
  • number of taxis: 14,900
  • number of traffic lights: 10,800
  • number of dogs: 200,000
  • kilometrage of visitable underground tunnels: 300
  • length of history: more than 2,000 years (excluding the prehistoric era)
  • possible number of individuals who have ever lived in Paris or just passed through, each with their own histories….countless

I find these little tidbits fascinating – and the idea of writing a history of a city like Paris must have been daunting. But Colins does it with interest and wit. 

Paris Was Ours: Thirty-Two Writers Reflect on the City of Light by Penelope Rowlands

This is the sort of book that one can pick up and put down – but each time it’s read is an enjoyable and soothing experience. In trying to tell the stories of a few of those countless people who have passed through and spent time in this city, Rowlands put together a remarkably varied collection. From someone taking a vacation from Iran during the revolution to a homeless Parisian woman who became famous by blogging about her experiences, to people who fell in and out of love in Paris, I enjoyed almost every one of these stories. They reflect aspects of this diverse city as well as its many moods – from beautiful and confident, to bleak and melancholy, to triumphal, to defeated. A city with two millennium of history is bound to touch people differently and Paris Was Ours captures those reactions.

The above books are about the city – one that is known the world over, one that captures and changes people. The next two books are about another subject – one that is romanticized, theorized, imitated, and obsessed over. People ask, how does this thing do it? Where does it get its je ne sais quoi? How does it stay so skinny? That, of course, is the French woman. Mysterious, envied, chic – this mythological creature stalks the pages of fashion magazines, leaving behind her a trail of rumpled egos and a cloud of Chanel Number 5. OK, I jest. But there is something about the French girl, her carefully wrapped scarf, perfectly messy hair, red lipstick, aloof bearing, and chic black wardrobe that seems so simple and yet so inaccessible. And that’s where the two following books come in.

Parisian Chic: A Style Guide by Ines de la Fressange with Sophie Gachet

My dear friend, Ashli, gave this lovely book to me when she learned I was moving to Paris. While it bills itself as a “style guide” it really is much more than that. It’s a sort of curriculum on developing a more “French” perspective on life, clothing, food, decor and more. De la Fressange emphasizes a minimalistic approach to clothing and makeup and provides a few tips. The true value of the book comes from her insider’s view of Paris. She outlines where to find great food at places you won’t read about on TripAdvisor. She breaks down the different neighborhoods, gives advice for living in tiny places. While she herself is insufferably chic, she’s also very down-to-earth and her book is a great guide to the hidden corners of Paris.

Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl by Debra Ollivier

This book was also a gift. The author is an American who married a Frenchman and lived in France for ten years. What I found frustrating about this book is that she takes the myth of the perfect French girl and inflates to a point that one would think that these creatures are no longer human – they’re demigoddesses. The portrait that Ollivier paints is of a woman who bakes perfect tart tatin while reading Sarte in her spacious and perfectly appointed apartment with floor-to-ceiling views of the Eiffel Tower in preparation for a party where she’s personally prepared six gourmet courses paired with six perfect but obscure wines, chosen the guest list to ensure lively and interesting conversation, curated a background music list of only the most perfect mood-setting melodies by unknown indie bands, and has had time to leisurely bathe and dress, in a wonderful little Chanel piece, so that she emerges relaxed and radient to greet said guests. And yes, this may happen in France, it may even happen on a regular basis, the problem is that Ollivier paints a picture of Paris in which this happens in every French woman’s home all the time. Ollivier obviously lived among the highest crust of Parisian and French society and I am sure that the concentration of perfection is probably higher there than it is in my neighborhood and at my little school. The thing I love about my new neighborhood is that I see moms taking their children to school, women running errands, old ladies bullying produce vendors. And they are all certainly just as human as the rest of us. Entre Nous while creating a lofty meringue of sugary Parisian mythology does provide its readers with lists of great books about French women like Marie Antoinette and Josephine as well as French films and music. I’m using the book to find other books about the aspects of French society I find fascinating.

Do you have any favorite books about France or Paris? I loved A Year in Provence, and My Life in France.

About Rebecca

Hi! After five years in Europe, I'm adjusting to life back in the US. I use this blog to record my adventures, post photos, organize recipes, and post about things that interest me.
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11 Responses to Literary Notes #19: The Romanticizing of Paris and Parisian Women

  1. Nathalie says:

    While in Paris last summer I drafted a list of books to read about Paris, none of which I have read since we got home. But you however, might get to them! Ladies Delight (Emile Zola in French or English), The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery in French or English), Books, baguettes and bedbugs (Jeremy Mercer).

    • Rebecca says:

      Thanks for the suggestions. I have read The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It was strange to me, the kind of book that seemed to be written for the critics. Anyway, the other two are definitely books I will be looking into.

  2. audrey says:

    I cannot recommend any Parisian books but I enjoyed reading your reviews. I especially liked the list of things in Paris – 40K fountains? I loved these lines of YOURS:
    “They reflect aspects of this diverse city as well as it’s many moods – from beautiful and confident, to bleak and melancholy, to triumphal, to defeated.”
    “Entre Nous while creating a lofty meringue of sugary Parisian mythology does provide its readers with lists of great books… ”
    And the one I hope to become while visiting you this spring:
    “While she herself is insufferably chic, she’s also very down-to-earth …”

  3. realoves says:

    “Entre Nous while creating a lofty meringue of sugary Parisian mythology does provide its readers with lists of great books about French women like Marie Antoinette and Josephine as well as French films and music.”
    Before I even knew Audrey had cut and pasted this beautifully articulated phrase, I was cutting and pasting the same! Brilliant, Bec!
    Thanks for bringing your hopelessly romantic mother back to earth!
    Great post!

  4. xandreverkes says:

    Becca, I would love to get a few of these titles!!! (maybe I should look them up online!!!)… I’ve only ever read one Parisian book – a gift from my mom for my birthday – it’s witty, charming, fun… hilarious…. 😀 I was laughing out loud quite often!!! The book is called: “Two lipsticks and a lover” by Helena Frith Powell… It’s light reading – I definitely recommend it!!! If you ever get hold of it… let me know what you think!!! 🙂 **

  5. I read David Lebovitz’s book in a day. I couldn’t put it down. i tagged so many pages, so i could reread them to my husband! It was very funny!

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