Friday, April 6, 2012

Escapism in Paris

“Couldn’t it be Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt she fantasized about being instead of Monet?”

From the small selection of paperbacks at the Kingston train station, I purchased Secrets of Paris by Luanne Rice (2012, Bantam Books [1]) for my trip back to Toronto. As an information professional in the arts, I was sold by this description on the back cover in spite of it being a romance novel: painter-turned-photo stylist Lydie McBride leaves her native New York for a year in Paris while her husband, Michael designs an information centre for the Louvre. It seemed a better choice than tabloid magazines, plus I’d already read the Via Destinations magazine on my way to Kingston.

Instead of infusing Lydie and Michael’s relationship with romance, the city of love drives a wedge the size of the Eiffel Tower between them. Michael cavorts with Anne Dumas, an attractive historian who is obsessed to a fault with celebrated 17th Century writer, Madame de Sevigné. Lydie, meanwhile, finds solace in friendships with foreigners that develop too quickly to be convincing. Patrice d’Origny is a happily married and well-to-do housewife who hails from the Boston gallery world and proclaims Lydie her best friend almost immediately after meeting in a café. Her maid, Kelly Merida, is from the Philippines and wants nothing more than to immigrate to America. While Patrice is on vacation for a month, Lydie goes from being served by Kelly as a guest to being her sponsor to feeling physically sick when her immigration petition is denied. If only we all made soul mates so speedily.

The pace at which the McBride’s marriage unravels, in contrast, is believable. The novel begins almost a year into Lydie’s grief for her father’s murder-suicide of his lover and himself, which understandably placed a strain on her own romantic life. It’s sad to see the warning signs of infidelity that they don’t address, and there is a nagging feeling that Michael’s infidelity could end in comparable tragedy. In the love triangle that ensues between Lydie, Michael, and Anne, it is inevitable to side with Lydie and Michael not because the dynamics of their marriage are written about in great detail or with gripping dialogue but because chapters are written from their points of view (as well as Patrice’s and Kelly’s) but never from Anne’s. Also, the only glimpse the reader gets into Anne’s marriage is of Lydie and Michael bumping into Anne and her husband, Jean, at a bistro and Anne confiding in Michael that she is contemplating not joining Jean for a vacation in August because they aren’t getting along. Whatever pain Anne feels is unknown to the reader.

Eventually, Michael ‘pulls a 180’ and decides he loves Lydie. Paris is romantic enough that their reconciliatory consummation needn’t be at an old hotel outside the city where Impressionism was reportedly born, where Eugene Boudin and Edouard Monet painted. It does, however, bring a reference full circle: consumed by grief at the beginning of the book, Lydie sits at a café across the Seine from the Louvre and imagines herself as Monet. (Couldn’t it be Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt she fantasized about being instead of Monet? Alas…)

Reading about Michael trying to secure a particular Poussin painting for his architectural project and striving to pay homage to the Louvre’s history in the wake of the controversy over the contemporary courtyard pyramids seemed a fitting way to unwind after my first week of training at a gallery with a rich historical collection housed in a designated heritage building. Given my new position, you’d think it would be stressful for me to read about Anne Dumas high jacking a decaying 300-year-old costume from the Louvre’s collection to wear to a ball so she could upstage Lydie and bring Madame de Sevigné to life, or to read about her trying to convince Michael to hide with her in the museum’s storerooms and spend the night illicitly, but it was fantastical enough to function as escapism. All in all, this is decent reading for passing time on the train but that’s the best endorsement I can give.

(1) Originally printed in hardcover in 1991 by Viking Penguin.

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