Reviewed: “Paris by the Book” by Liam Callanan

Reviewed: “Paris by the Book” by Liam Callanan

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Here are some of the things I learned about Paris by the Book before even opening it.

That it is a mystery.

That it is a book that booklovers, readers, writers, and bookstore owners (especially small, independent bookstore owners) would like.

That it is a book that people who love Paris would like.

All of these things are true, and were interesting enough to make me want to read this book.

And yet what really piqued my interest were these words in a note from Liam Callanan, the author of the book, which was included with my review copy.

My novel is about dreams. Paris dreams, life dreams, family dreams, and what happens when those dreams conflict with reality….What role do dreams play in a marriage? What if they change? And what if someone—a spouse—or somewhere—a city—you thought you knew well turns out to be utterly different?

The author Liam Callanan, photo by his wife Susan Callanan

At the center of the story are the very likeable Leah and her daughters Ellie and Daphne, but they are surrounded with a collection of equally sympathetic characters, some of them also quite amusing. A chance discovery of the plane tickets Robert, Leah’s husband and father of the girls, has purchased for the family before his mysterious disappearance brings Leah and the girls to Paris, a place Leah has dreamed of being all her life. In Paris, another chance event causes her to decide to stay in Paris, where she and her daughters go about reconstructing their lives, which have been grievously disrupted and derailed by Robert’s absence.

Partly because it is a mystery, and partly because it is a rather complicated, multilayered story, it would be both difficult and not a good idea to tell too much more of the plot. Suffice it to say that the mystery part of it is compelling enough that at a certain point I was simply unable to contain my curiosity any longer and so I—usually a fairly law-abiding reader who doesn’t go around breaking certain unwritten rules—DID PEEK! (My curiosity was not satisfied with that one quick peek, I had to just go back and keep reading the way you’re supposed to: the answer to the mystery I was seeking to find was not be revealed so easily.)

But I would like to mention that in addition to the very satisfying suspensefulness of the story, there are two other aspects I particularly enjoyed. One is that there are a number of deft allusions to or illustrations of what it is like to be an American in Paris, and/or how Paris and Parisians tend to appear to Americans. How Callanan managed to achieve this feat without having actually lived in Paris is also a bit mysterious, though he has included some clues as to how he did it in his acknowledgements. In any case, this aspect of the book is very well done, and will bring smiles of recognition to American expatriates living in Paris.

But also: this book offers incredibly sensitive insight into the emotional anguish that even very good parents are subject to when they know they could have been better ones. I would say that one of the themes of the book is parenting—good parenting, bad parenting, and all the wide range that falls between these two poles.

So I would add to the list of those who will enjoy this book, parents. There is wisdom to be had in knowing that parental missteps and failings, though painful, need not be definitive. Children, thank God, are both resilient and (eventually) forgiving. Among many other things this wise, wonderful story offers its readers is this comforting knowledge.

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Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher who divides her time between France and the United States. She writes frequently on France for a variety of publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. Each summer she teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure,” in Paris for the Queens College, CUNY Education Abroad Program. She also leads book groups at the American Library in Paris, and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region.

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