Top positive review
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Grand and captivating - much like the city he describes
on 7 May 2013
Taking four families, from different social positions, Edward Rutherfurd weaves these family histories into the history of Paris and France. We encounter the noble de Cygnes, the bourgeois Blanchards, the lower class Gascons and the revolutionary Le Sourds. Their lives cross paths through the years in often unexpected ways and while "Paris" is an historical fiction novel, this is as much an epic story of families as it is about the history.
Rutherfurd is a remarkable writer in many ways. His output is consistently strong and "Paris" is no exception. He has developed an excellent formula for his books, based either on cities or in some cases countries, weaving personal stories to show how historical events impact on real lives. But if the term "formula" suggests some short cuts on the part of the writer, nothing could be further from the truth. Like all his books, Rutherfurd's historical research is thorough and exemplary and he manages to convey the spirit of the nation in his story and goes a long way to explaining some of the subtle complexities of French politics and culture, and in particular the socialist revolutionary spirit.
"Paris" though differs slightly in scope from some of his other books. His main focus is much more limited in time frame. Often he traces cities back to their very emergence but while his coverage ranges from 1261 to 1968, in the main, his focus is on the period from 1875 to 1940, and therefore spans the lifetime of people who saw the construction of the Eiffel Tower to the German occupation in World War Two. His approach is broadly chronological, at least in the main thread, with occasional trips to earlier years which also start chronologically but this is less the case later in the book and in particular is the highly effective leap back to 1794 and the French Revolution, just before the Second World War chapters which highlight the way that, for some, the resistance movement in Paris was seen as the conclusion of the great revolutionary movement.
One of the great strengths of Rutherfurd's writing is what he leaves out. That might sound an odd thing to say in a book spanning a wrist-challenging 752 pages (in fact in terms of Rutherfurd's normal output this is almost a short story for him!). He doesn't feel the need to explain what is happening to all of his four main families at each historical stage though and while the depth of historical research is evident, he has a wonderful knack of both simplifying events and throwing in little snippets of history that are unusual and memorable without ever seeming to include research just because he has done it. First and foremost for Rutherfurd comes the stories of the people - if the history helps to explain their motives and thinking then it goes in. If not, then it doesn't.
He also has the ability of a crime writer to set up different threads that you think "oh, they will meet up again" and some do, and many don't. This helps to make his characters seem highly believable and keeps you captivated. But this being France, expect affairs, mistresses, betrayal, unlikely friendships and plenty of intrigue. The writing is never dry and, despite the hefty page count, the story flies along and the World War Two ending is particularly poignant. It's a hugely entertaining book, as well as one that captures and explains something of the culture of a nation and a city.It is true it can be confusing at times to keep track of the various characters, but if you can cope with that, then it is absolutely superb.