Paris is a unique book, both in subject matter and in structure. In brief, it tells the story of the city, from early medieval times up through the second World War and everything in between. While many works of historical fiction have been set in Paris, and others have told the story of particular events that have taken place in the great city, I can think of none that strive to tell the story of the city itself.
Rutherford accomplishes this feat by following a group of families as they travel down through the ages, sometimes feuding, sometimes intermingling, sometimes existing in complete obscurity from one another. Following the narrative thread through the first half of the book is a bit challenging as he does not write his tale in chronological order. One chapter you are dealing with the inner workings of Versailles, the next it is the roaring 20’s and Paris is being “invaded” by American artists. However, once you approach the novel’s halfway point you find yourself invested in the little triumphs each family has had and rooting for one group or another.
Even though the reader’s sympathies may lie with one family or another, Rutherford has clearly been careful not to create a clear protagonist/antagonist relationship between the various clans. Each family has its heroes and villains. It is almost because of this that you identify so closely with certain groups. One family in particular has a member who does some rather unspeakable things which caused me to wince as I rather liked the family as a whole. It seemed more of a betrayal since I had formed a relationship with this group of individuals.
Through following these families I even learned a bit about Parisian history that I had been hereto unawares. I of course knew about the storming of the Bastille, but I did not know a main objective was to get at the gun powder stored there. I was also unaware of the complicated relationship many of the upper classes had with occupying Germans. These and other tidbits of history made the book both enjoyable and educational. Overall, Paris was a great book that I can strongly recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, Paris the city, or history in general.
On a side note: all good fiction should somehow change us, or at least inspire us in some way, and Paris was able to do that for me. It inspired me to look into my own history a bit. My family had been in the same town for 6 generations and my kids are the fourth generation to live in my house. Granted, my hometown is no Paris, but this novel got me wondering if there are some stories worth researching about my own past. You really can’t ask for much more than that from a novel.