Monday, November 19, 2007

Paris Requiem by Lisa Appignanesi

This is one of the best researched books that I have read in quite a while. Lisa Appignanesi has written an interesting book about turn-of-the-century Paris which covers a lot of the main problems that existed at the time: anti-Semitism, prostitution, gender norms, and the treatment of foreigners.
The story revolves around James, Raf, and Elli Norton, three Americans in Paris in 1899. Raf's fiancee is found dead and a murder investigation ensues. The story is detailed and covers every social realm of nineteenth-century Paris. The story itself is not the most original. The murderer is not a complete and total shock. But, the research, the accuracy, and the topic are fascinating.
Appignanesi has obviously done tremendous research about the time and place where her book takes place. The story would not make sense in any other setting because of the tensions that existed in Paris in 1899.
I can't review this book without making it personal. So much of what Appignanesi writes about is exactly what I studied as a graduate student. I would guess that we read some of the same books in doing our research. Her understanding of gender - relations, problems, -bending, norms - reflects all of the contemporary research done by historians and anthropologists studying France. She also has done extensive work on the Dreyfus affair and the newspaper response to it. She accurately depicts the tension between the military and the journalists - egged on by the writings of Zola.She has managed to convincingly connect the Dreyfus Affair to medical and political beliefs of the time. Her descriptions of the mental hospital and the medical fields treatment of mentally unstable individuals - usually seen as women or Jews - also very clearly dovetails with the historical and medical texts written about the era. Finally, her use of Americans as the main characters allows her to underscore the tensions that existed in 1899 towards foreigners.
That Appignanesi could blend all of these issues into one coherent and engaging story is, to me, the sign of a great novelist. If I could figure out a way to create characters who live at the intersection of so many varied historical topics and place them accurately on the map in Paris at the time, maybe I could become a bestselling author too.

1 comment:

Shannon said...

Another one to add to the list! ;-)