Beyond Madeline: Books about Paris

“In an old house covered with vines

Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines

They left the house at half past nine…

The youngest one was Madeline.”

Ludwig Bemelmans; Madeline

 

I met Madeline when I was a little girl, and she and the “little girls all in a row” enchanted me. I knew nothing about Paris then, but I coveted Madeline’s bright blue coat, her red bow, her jaunty hat with the black ribbon, and all of her adventures in Paris with friends just her age. I was a bit envious of her appendectomy — look at all the attention she got. Being an orphan didn’t even seem so bad, not that I had any real idea what an orphan was. Madeline is now seventy-five years old and still enthralling little girls.

With its rich history and beauty, Paris makes the perfect setting for a good read. What a delight it was to walk into my local indie bookstore, Anderson’s Bookshop, and find this display of books about Paris, presided over by Madeline herself!

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Here are two more of my favorites, completely different from Madeline and from each other.

While browsing the “What’s New” shelf in the Sarasota Public Library, I found Paris Letters: One Woman’s Journey from the Fast Lane to a Slow Stroll in Paris, by Janice MacLeod. I read this little charmer in a day. The author describes her disenchantment with her job as a copy editor, and her decision to chuck it all and move to Paris. First, she figures out exactly how much this will cost and what she’ll have to do to acquire this amount. And then, in one year, she does it. Her story of setting off on her own in quest of her dream is a lovely mix of practical how-to’s, humor, and romance, with the vibrancy of Paris pouring from every page. Her descriptions of the market on Rue Mouffetard have put this spot on my “must-do” list.

A favorite from several years ago is Abundance, Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel of Marie Antoinette. In the voice of Marie Antoinette, the story is rich with intimate details of the often sumptuous, ultimately tragic life of this infamous queen of France.

Most of us know some basics about Marie Antoinette, typically characterized as a heartless royal who dismissed her starving subjects with, “Let them eat cake.” Naslund’s story debunks this myth and leads us into the glittering halls of Versailles to become acquainted with a sweet-tempered, gentle woman.

The story begins when a fourteen-year-old Marie leaves Austria, after her mother, the Empress, arranges her marriage to the adolescent Dauphin, Louis XVI. Marie, duty-bound to produce offspring, immediately charms the French and begins her life at the Palace of Versailles. While opulence abounds and Marie is smothered by constant attention of courtiers, life is incomplete. Naslund creates a woman alive with passion. Yes, Marie has her vices, especially a love of gambling and extravagant clothing. But Naslund’s Marie is not flighty or cold; she is a kind friend, a loyal spouse, a loving mother to her children, and a devotee of opera and art.

The abundance of Versailles creates a sharp contrast to portents of doom as unrest festers throughout France. I was riveted and haunted by Marie’s terrible final months, days and hours. The steps up the scaffold at the Place de la Revolution have lingered in my mind long after the blade of the guillotine crashed down, and will impact my view of the Palace when we visit there.

 

 

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