Indeed, Willie is a do-gooder but one with a wild, sentimental heart. Her responses to various stimuli — new love, illness, and the hardships endured by her students — range from impulsive to joyful to obsessive, and they are always passionate. When her brother’s mysterious ailment persists despite medical intervention, the reader is pulled along through Willie’s many manifestations of fear and dread; when her burgeoning affair with French immigration lawyer Macon Ventri takes a turn for the romantic, the reader’s heart soars with Willie’s; and when she makes a mistake that could cost her this new relationship, we understand the depth of her melancholy.
Conley achieves this feat by including details that are both intimate and precise. The themes of the book are wide-ranging but their treatment is narrow and specific to Willie and her family. We walk through different neighborhoods of Paris with her, we smell the spring lilacs as she does (“their smell is of dried roses and something almond and lush”), and we taste her food (“We drink red wine, and the meat is tender and falls away from my fork. There’s a warm trace of nutmeg. The potatoes are brown and slightly crispy on the outside.”).
When the sad parts come — and they do — they are so interwoven with moments of beauty that the sadness itself seems exquisite. Paris Was the Place, despite its horrors both political and personal, reminds us that it is impossible to separate what is hideous from what is lovely in our everyday lives.
“Good poetry,” Willie says early in the book, “is like a map of the heart, tracing questions about the afterlife and the death of God and love. Always love. Which draws me to certain poems over and over. For some of the students, this delving feels like a very good thing, and for other it’s too scary or beside the point.”
Good prose, too. And in Paris Was the Place, the delving is delicious and filling, lingering long after the meal is complete.
Susan Conley will read from her novel at several Maine locations during the months of August and September. Visit susanconley.com for specifics.
Paris Was the Place | by Susan Conley | Knopf | $26.95 | 355 pages