Today I'm delighted to take my turn on the Blog Tour for "The Light of Paris." This is a really charming and endearing read -I would highly recommend it- particularly for those of you who enjoy dual story lines, female characters and novels operating in two different times. Eleanor Brown writes very well and it is an interesting exploration of women's journey for self discovery in two very different eras.
I'm thrilled to be able to share with you an extract from the book which I have received as a real treat from the publishers! So without further ado, read on for a taster of the opening chapter and then add the novel to your Summer Reading pile!
I didn’t set out to lose myself. No one does, really. No one purposely swims away from the solid, forgiving anchor of their heart. We simply make the tiniest of compromises, the smallest of decisions, not realizing the way those small changes add up to something larger until we are forced, for better or worse, to face the people we have become.
I had the best of intentions, always: to make my mother happy, to keep the peace, to smooth my rough edges and ease my own way. But in the end, the life I had crafted was like the porcelain figurines that resided in my mother’s china cabinets: smooth, ornate, but delicate and hollow. For display only. Do not touch.
Long ago, I might have called myself an artist. As a child, I drew on every blank surface I encountered—including, to my mother’s dismay, the walls, deliciously empty front pages of library books, and more than a few freshly ironed tablecloths. In high school, I spent hours in the art room after school, painting until the sun coming through the skylights grew thin and the art teacher would gently put her hand on my shoulder and tell me it was time to go home. Lingering under my Anaïs Anaïs per- fume was the smell of paint, and the edges of every textbook I owned were covered with doodles and drawings. On the weekends, I hid from my mother’s bottomless disapproval in the basement of our house, whereI had set up an easel, painting until my fingers were stiff and the light
had disappeared, rendering the colors I blended on the palette an indis- criminate black.
But I hadn’t painted since I had gotten married. Now, I spent hours leading tour groups through the Stabler Art Museum’s galleries, pointing out the beautiful blur of the Impressionists, the lush clarity of the Roman- tics, the lawless color of Abstract Expressionism. As we moved between the rooms, I showed them the progression of the paintings, movement washing into movement like the confluence of rivers, the same medium, the same tools, yet so completely different in appearance, in intent, in heart. No matter how many times I explained it, it seemed beautifully impossible that Monet had been creating his gentle pastorals less than a hundred years before the delicious chaos of Jackson Pollock’s murals.
It was almost enough.
Usually Tanis took the older kids; she had four teenage sons and wasn’t afraid of anything. But she was out, and the other docents were booked, so the coordinator asked if I would take the group. I had hesi- tated for a moment—teenagers seemed scary and uncontrolled, all loose limbs and incomprehensible fashion decisions and bad attitudes—and then told him I would. Their teacher would be with us, after all, and she had requested one of my favorite tours, on artists and their influences.
When I met them in the lobby, I asked the kids their names and who their favorite artists were, to which they, predictably, reacted as though I were trying to get them to divulge state secrets. Their teacher, Miss Pine, was young and slender, with hair that fell loose around her shoulders, more knot than curl, as though she wound her fingers in it all the time. I—and most of the women I knew—wore slim sheath dresses with elegant scarves, an acceptably polite pop of color, but Miss Pine was wrapped in a pile of boysenberry-colored fabric that looked less like a dress and more like a collection of handkerchiefs that had been safety-pinned together. She must have been wearing bracelets or bells, because she jingled as she
moved. Either that, or she was hiding a number of out-of-season reindeer
underneath those swathes of fabric.
“How long have you been teaching?” I asked, making conversation as we headed to the first stop on the tour, followed by our little ducklings, the floors creaking agreeably beneath our feet.
“Almost ten years,” Miss Pine said, smiling at me. I must have made a face of horror, because she laughed, a light sound with a rough edge that made me smile just to hear it. “They’re not so bad, are they?”
Glancing over my shoulder at the kids, who meandered along in our wake as we climbed the wide marble staircase to the second floor, I laughed too. “Not so bad.” The boys were bouncing off each other like pinballs, a couple of the girls walked with their heads bent together in the inimitable intimacy of teenagers, a few others drifted off to the edges of the staircase to look at the paintings that lined the walls or the sculp- tures on the landing.
“I just have lingering flashbacks to my own experience. I didn’t cope so well with high school kids when I was in high school myself. I basi- cally spent four years slinking around, trying to fly under the radar.”
Miss Pine waved her hand, setting off her bells again. “We all did. It’s much easier from this side of the desk, I promise you. Plus, you get to try to make it a slightly less miserable experience for them than it was for you.”
“All right, ladies and gentlemen, first stop,” I said when we reached the Renaissance room. I turned to face them, clapping my hands together and then instantly regretting it. I was not an earnest, hand-clapping, Precious Moments stationery–using sort of person. “What do you know about Renaissance art? Lay it on me.”
The kids, who had been chattering enthusiastically as we walked, of course chose that moment to fall sullenly silent. Elementary-aged chil- dren seemed almost violent in their desire to speak, hurling their entire bodies into the air when they raised their hands, as though they were
controlled by marionette strings. But these high schoolers were draped
with languid adolescent ease that didn’t hide the twitch of their eyes, their anxious fingers worrying their pencils, the edges of their sketch pads. I had thought for sure the Renaissance paintings might get them, all those nudes with their tender, pale skin and tactfully placed hands and leaves, but they seemed only politely interested.
“Come on, people,” I said. “I’m getting you out of school for the day. The least you can do is answer my questions.”
Miss Pine and a couple of the kids grinned. Eliza, a girl with long brown braids and a T-shirt bearing a faded print of Munch’s The Scream, raised her hand. She reminded me a little of myself at that age—a spray of pimples across her forehead, curls breaking free of her braids, a thick, sturdy body. She held a paintbrush between her fingers, perhaps in case of an unexpected art emergency, which kind of made me want to give her a hug.
“My savior!” I said. “Pray, my lady, speak.”
Eliza flushed a little as her classmates turned to look at her, but when she spoke, her voice was loud and clear and confident. Or at least as con- fident as a teenage girl could be, her voice lilting up into questions at the end. “They were really interested in, like, Classical art? Like, Greeks?”
“And the Romans, yeah!” I said. I was so excited someone was actually talking that I might have spoken a little too loudly, because a boy named Lam, his black hair swept into a style that made him look as though he were standing in a wind tunnel, actually took a step back. I cleared my throat and tried for something a little less enthusiastic, the reserved voice I used in the rest of my life, where I spent all my time talking about things I didn’t care about. “They were fascinated by Greco-Roman culture, and you can see those influences everywhere. Take this painting, for instance,” I said, pointing at a piece by an Italian artist. “Do you see these sculptures running along the top of the building in the background?”
The kids leaned forward and I suppressed a grin. So they were inter-
ested after all. It was just a matter of breaking through their external cool
to find the real people underneath.
Lam spoke up. “It looks like those friezes on the Parthenon.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” I said. “And that’s not an accident. They were trying to revitalize art, so they went looking for the pinnacle of artistic achievement, and they found it in Classical art.”
“So they were copying?” a short, slender girl asked. I couldn’t remem- ber her name. When she had introduced herself, I was distracted by how small and insubstantial she seemed, as though she were a shadow her owner had left behind.
“It’s not copying,” a boy named Hunter said, his words dripping with disdain. “It’s like, inspiration.” The shadow girl dropped her chin, shrink- ing even further into herself, and I wanted to rush to her rescue. Hunter was good-looking in the irritatingly effortless way some teenage boys have, their features delicate and girlishly pretty, and I could tell from the way the other kids arranged themselves around him that he was the cen- ter of their social constellation.
Fortunately, Miss Pine stepped in before I had to. “Dial down the attitude, Hunter,” she said mildly, and I watched the kids shift again, Hunter deflating slightly, the shadow girl glancing up from underneath her eyelashes, the others looking somewhat relieved. I gave Miss Pine a mental high five. “It’s a fair moral question, given how much you all get harangued about plagiarism.”
“And that’s really what we’re here to talk about today, right? Where artists get their ideas, their techniques, their style,” I said.
“From each other,” Eliza said, waving her paintbrush at me. “Exactly,” I said. “Why don’t we go check out the Neoclassicists and
see some more examples?”
Our conversation was livelier in the Neoclassical room, where I man- aged to engage the kids in a conversation about the Romans, possibly be- cause I mentioned vomitoriums. Proof that no one ever progresses past
the age of thirteen, and when nudity fails, gross-out humor is always a
When the kids had exhausted their (fairly impressive) repertoire of throw-up jokes, I gave them a few minutes to linger in the room. Some of them were sketching wildly, and I felt my fingers itch as I watched them. The self-conscious tightness that had surrounded them fell away, and their inner eager elementary schoolers sprang out. Long ago, that would have been me, so desperate to create I could hardly keep my hands still.
I leaned against the wall, and Miss Pine came to stand beside me. “Anyway,” she said, continuing our earlier conversation as though it had never been interrupted, “teaching is really the best way to stay in touch with my own art. If I’m encouraging them to create, I’d feel like a fraud if I didn’t do it myself. What about you? Are you an artist?”
“Oh, no. I mean, I took art in school, but that’s not, I mean, it wasn’t real,” I said hurriedly, lest she get the wrong idea.
“Really?” She raised a pale eyebrow. “But you talk about it so pas- sionately. I just assumed . . .”
Tamping down the longing that always emerged when I was talking about art, I shook my head. “I wanted to be a painter, but I just . . . I guess I just grew out of it.”
The truth was far too difficult to explain, especially to Miss Pine, with her heart big and warm enough for these kids and their self- conscious eyes, and the earnest chitter of her jewelry. This was the bar- gain I had made. I knew Phillip had married me partially because he had zero taste and I knew something about art, but I was only allowed to be in contact with it in the most clinical of ways, preferably ones that made him look good. I could visit dealers and haggle over paintings for his office, or for the condo, purchases based more on square footage and their power to impress and/or intimidate the person looking at them than on artistic merit. I could lead tours here, volunteer, but I couldn’t
make art myself.
This is a really pleasing read following the two lives of Margie and Madeleine, grandmother and grand-daughter, on their journeys of self discovery- decades apart, but full of similarities.
Margie's story is set in 1924. Unhappily confined by the expectations of her parents and society, she finds herself trying to reject the inevitable path of marriage and submissiveness that lies ahead. Taking the opportunity to travel to Paris as a companion to another debutant, Margie then finds herself inspired, awakened and empowered by the people and city. But can it last or will she eventually have to return to "real life" and all it's constraints?
Madeleine's story is set in 1999 (although it sometimes feels more like the 1950s!) and sees her returning to her mother's house to contemplate the unhappiness and the restrictions she feels marriage and society have imposed upon her; suffocating her real desire to paint and carve her own path out for herself.
Both stories are about self discovery and the role of women in society. When Madeleine stumbles across her grandmother's diary, she is fascinated to read of her time in Paris and all the artistic and interesting people she meets. What she is not prepared for is the secret that she unwittingly discovers as she learns more about her grandmother's time there. It helps her to consider her own position in life and within her marriage. Can it give her the confidence to make decisions and changes that were beyond her grandmother?
I thought this story was beautifully written. It was compelling and the alternating story lines were full of interesting similarities and overlaps despite their distance in time and location. It is a reflective book and very pensive in its style but both the main female protagonists are vivid and very easy to form a relationship with. They are both engaging and relatable.
Margie feels like a woman before her time. Her mother is obsessed with her marriage and Margie is very bored with being a constant disappointment or a doll that won't perform.
"Margie crossed her eyes. There was going to be no husband. She knew it, and she guessed her mother knew it, and only said things like that to keep the fiction alive, for whose benefit she wasn't sure."
It feels very Austen -like at times; it is the 1920s and yet Margie is totally defined by her marriageability and how she is regarded within their class of society. Her mother has nothing else to really do but negotiate a match. Indeed, Mr Chapman's proposal is similar to that of the dreadful Mr Collins in "Pride and Prejudice". He begins with "I'm sure you're aware of how closely your father and I work together," then continues with the very pragmatic "it is an alliance I wish to preserve at any cost." Margie's response - as it so often does - made me giggle: "Margie wished there were a nearby plate of potatoes she could put her face in." She knows little of what her father does, (interesting historical comment on how some men still persisted in refraining from involving women with business and finances) only that he has something to do with the Washington Senators - a basketball team - but she's never allowed to go to the games as " 'The obligations of someone of your class' apparently didn't include eating peanuts, or doing anything fun, for that matter." Mr Chapman then tells her that he'd "like to cement that relationship by marrying (her)". So romantic! Any reader is going to find it hard not to sympathise with her plight. Margie's dry, sarcastic reactions - whether only unspoken or not - bring a lot of gentle humour to the novel and make her a very appealing young woman. It reflects her intelligence and exaggerates the importance of her trying to escape such a restrictive future.
Madeleine too is insightful, resourceful, bright and talented. She is very creative and her link with art is an important part of her characterisation. She is very similar to Margie. For Madeleine there are times when it feels that despite the progress made in Women's Rights, things are still complicated for women. And Margie's voice often felt as contemporary as a woman speaking in the 1990s. Both are very authentic and I was as intrigued with each story line. The alternating order of the tales encourages the reader to keep turning the page. The final twist, although creating a great ending and a necessary part of the plot, wasn't the thing that really struck me or kept me wanting to read more; I just wanted to know what happened to them both. I was part of their emotional journey of self awareness.
The chapters are relatively short and the plot is well controlled. I liked the author's use of language and found the description effective and at times, beautiful. The setting of Paris is really captivating and I would recommend the book to people who are interested in this period in time or Paris as it is a big part of the novel.
Overall, this is a thoughtful and interesting story of two women in two different times as they learn about love, duty, ambition and fate. I would strongly recommend you take a look!
My thanks to NetGalley for an advanced copy in return for a fair and honest review.