Book Review: Parisian Life by Edith de Belleville
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Some people have the incomparable gift of being absolutely, completely, totally themselves. Edith de Belleville is one such person. Author, lawyer, licensed tour guide, single mom, and above all parisienne, her book Parisian Life: Adventures in the City of Light has recently been released.
Parisian Life is a collection of stories about the author’s life as a tour guide in Paris, and the book is every bit as lively as the author herself. “I live my life through literature, art, and through the history of Paris,” she tells us early in the book. “Each stone, each street, each monument, each museum, and each café can tell you a different story.”
In this book she tells you those stories: many of the stories are from French history, others are her own personal stories. All are filtered through her fresh and unique perspective, and told with disarming honesty, candor, and a genuine passion for the city she loves.
Her style is whimsical (for example, she recounts cheeky face-to-face “conversations” she has with the likes of Hemingway and Napoleon), but the historical information conveyed in the book is solid. Through her passion for Paris we learn interesting things about Danton, Stendhal, Marie Antoinette, George Sand, Coco Chanel. We learn about the famous 17th-century courtesan, Ninon, and about the poem Le Pont Mirabeau by Apollinaire; and about many other figures as well as events in French history.
Reading this book is like having the opportunity to take a private guided tour of Paris with the author as she takes you to well-known settings: the Café Select, the Hotel Ritz, the Louvre, yes; but also to “everyday” sites in Paris, for example a café in the Latin Quarter, where she meets a friend for a “quick lunch” one day. When her friend mentions that the café they are in is just an ordinary café and that the life she is living in Paris is an ordinary one, Edith protests that neither the café, nor her friend’s life in Paris is ordinary:
“Look at the name! It’s Café Descartes, from the first modern philosopher, René Descartes, who lived in the 17th century. And look there.” I point to an old stone wall visible from where we are sitting…“This is the old wall of Philippe Auguste,” I say, “built in the 12th century to protect Paris from the English. Where else could you eat inexpensive delicious lunch in a place named for a famous 17th century philosopher while admiring a 12th century wall?…And I don’t even mention the fact that Hemingway lived 50 meters from where we are. So no, you are not living an ordinary life in Paris…You live an authentic life in Paris!”
She is quick to call out misconceptions held by Americans, and to debunk myths she considers to be ridiculous. But mostly she admires the qualities there are to admire in Americans, and she notes in her preface that she wrote the book in part to urge American women to be themselves:
I wrote this book because I’m annoyed by all the books written for the U.S. market that tell my American sisters how they need to be as slim, sexy, young-looking (without plastic surgery)…and of course as chic as a French woman…Enough is enough! We should support each other, we women from all over the world, instead of feeling we should conform to some marketing directive: “If you can’t be a Frenchwoman, at least try to imitate her”… I say “Non! Stay as you are!”
She adds, parenthetically: “By the way, if someone knows how French women can look young without plastic surgery, I’d love to know.”
To me de Belleville’s endearing cluster of qualities is one that I think of as being particularly French: a passion for history, language, art, and literature; a lively and stimulating intellect; a brilliant verbal wit; and just beneath a polished surface of dignified discretion and politesse, passion and emotion always bubbling, about to break through. In talking about one of her client she calls “Mr. CEO,” with whom she has an extensive (and very romantic) flirtation (or was it a full-fledged romance?)… well, we’ll never know. Edith de Belleville suggests, but does not reveal those things that are really none of our business.
In any case, in the end, her real love is Paris. Readers who also love Paris — or even those who have not had the pleasure of being in Paris yet, but are longing to make it there one day — will enjoy “being” in Paris in the company of this highly intelligent, compassionate, vulnerable, and yet very strong Parisian woman, who draws much of her strength from the city.
Paris is my home….Paris makes me feel everything more potently. Everything done in Paris is more delicious, more powerful. I feel more alive here…The beauty of this city consoles me when I feel down. The stories of this poetic urban place entertain me when I’m bored. The lively Parisians sitting in the cafés make me smile when I’m sad. Yes, as long as I have Paris, I’ll have hope.
Lead photo credit : Edith de Belleville. Photo credit: Ted Belton
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