'How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare that after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.' No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement. — from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
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April 29, 2012

An Unexpected Guest


One of the best things about the public library system I belong to is that you have access to all of the member libraries and their unique services.  The town next to mine, for example, sends out regular newsletters on new books, in the genres I love most (fiction, nonfiction, crime and mysteries, even audiobooks}, so I'm always finding new things to look for thanks to them.  {A couple of years ago, I stumbled -- I don't remember how -- on this online list from the Princeton (town, not university}library. It's a great source, too, even from a distance.} 


An Unexpected Guest, by Anne Korkeakivi, was one of those finds.  It was described as being set in one long day, as the central figure, the American wife of a British diplomat posted to Paris, prepares for an evening party, suggesting that it echoes Mrs. Dalloway in that regard. {I read that novel in college, and now I want to read it again.}  The book jacket tells us that Clare is living 'a graceful life' in Paris. But it's not a life I could imagine wanting.  Everything about her is composed and controlled:  her elegant beige clothing {even her husband and sons joke with her about it), her schedule, her efforts to placate her son's headmaster and her prickly cook, what she can do and what she can say.  As members of the diplomatic service, Edward and Clare know that their home is not their home {it's always referred to as The Residence}, not only because the apartment belongs to the Foreign Office but because their time in Paris will end, as it always does, when Edward gets his next new posting.  We're told right away that he may be offered the ambassadorship to Ireland, that the dinner party may clinch his appointment, and that going to Dublin would be frightening or risky {we're kind of hit over the head with this} for Clare, and another story unfolds beneath the day in Paris.

Clare and Edward's apartment is on the Rue de Varenne, near the Musee Rodin. {I remember going to the Musee, and walking down the Rue de Varenne in search of Edith.}  When she's out and about, there's the Paris that we know:

        They were out now, over the Seine, on the Pont Alexander III, heading for Place des Invalides. The sudden sense of space here was uncanny, the monumentality of Paris at its most extreme. Cupids frolicking in the buff, horses with gilt wings thrust into the Parisian firmament. A bateau mouche appeared from under the bridge, making its way down the Seine like softened butter being spread on bread, tiny ripples following its wake.
     'Je descends devant la Musee Rodin, s'il vous plait,' she told the driver. The entrance to the Rodin Museum was literally steps from the Residence. She shouldn't lose more than fifteen minutes by stopping there to drop off the translation. As soon as she'd left the hairdresser's, she'd called Amelie; everything was going according to schedule at the Residence.
     The French Ministry of Culture had recently redone the museum entrance. She missed the shabby old entry as it used to be:  a crumbling stone cubbyhole that spilled out directly into the gardens, manned by a makeshift wooden ticket booth. The magical instant of stepping through an unprepossessing break in the old stone wall surrounding the property to find oneself amidst eighteenth-century splendor.  The monolithic new entrance, incorporated into a nineteenth-century chapel, looked modern in a faux-Egyptian way, a smooth, slick style that had become only recently popular amongst museums. It made her feel old. The museum entrances she'd floated through as student trying out her nascent French, Italian and Spanish skills on the European continent had been completely different. ...
      The pale monumental facade of the Hotel Biron, the chief museum building, stood directly ahead, a maze of symmetrical rose gardens and clipped box trees fanning out in front of it. She passed before them without giving the building a second thought and headed for the main part of the garden, on the sunny southern side. She barely paused before the Gates of Hell, flanking the property's eastern wall, all those agonized bodies in various aspects of contortion, the beat of their deep bronze reflecting back at her. There was Eve, her plump arms hugging her curvy torso, her head bowed. The catalog Clare had most recently worked on suggested that the model for the statue had been in the early stages of pregnancy and had found Rodin's studio too chilly. And, yes, even in the spring sun, she looked uncomfortable.

The past comes to intersect with the present {we know all along that this is going to happen, even from the book's title}.  It's hard for me to say that I enjoyed a book when I can't wrap my hands around a character or a life and settle in comfortably to spend time there. But I enjoyed it more and more as things got less orderly. As in many books, there was a mixture of perfect images and very good writing with things that seemed a little too obvious and studied. But found myself not being sure how things would end, and wanting to know. I'm very glad I read it.

1 comment:

JoAnn said...

This sounds like another candidate for my Paris in July list!

Does your library use Wowbrary? Mine started within the past couple of months - it sends out an email describing new purchases/additions to their collection. It seems like I'm placing holds every week now!

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