There is the selection of stories itself that is interesting. Two are primarily set in Paris, the book ends for one set in Montana. Meaningful design, or whimsy?
In both the stories set in Paris, there is a strong element of American "innocents abroad," traveling out of their depth, with an inchoate sense that Paris will solve the problems of their shallow lives. In the first story, "The Womanizer," the American protagonist, Martin Austin, is nominally a happily married, yet is pulled to a certain "je ne sais quoi" that seems to envelop French women. Ford has a remarkable ability to portray what is Austin's mind, while at the same time depicting the reality that he is oblivious to. At one point Austin sees, sitting in a café, "a man with soiled lapels, in need of a shave and short of cash, scribbling his miserable thoughts into a tiny spiral notebook like all the other morons he's seen who'd thrown their lives away," which is a haunting foreshadowing of the inevitable, tragic denouement of Austin's odyssey - certainly far more tragic than my limited imagination could have predicted.
In the third story, "Occidentals," a "retired" white English professor, who through a fluke, had become a black studies specialist, has taken one of his former students, who is eight years older than him, for their first trip to Paris. She has cancer, and a classic checklist of sights that must be seen. At one point she meets former friends, the true "Ugly Americans" abroad, and they have dinner. They scene is a painful read, for regrettably it is not crude caricature, but an accurate depiction of those who are uncomfortable out of their own narrow cultural norms. Likewise, there is another tragic denouement.
Then, the middle story, "Jealous," would easily fit into his stories entitled "Rock Springs." It is that hard-scrabble existence, along the upper continental divide that is portrayed. A boy is coming of age, his parents are divorced; he is leaving his father, on good terms, to spend time with his mother on the West Coast, and is accompanied by his aunt. The physical and spiritual poverty of their lives is deftly described in classic Ford style.
I used to think this was Ford's finest work, but after the re-read have reduced it to parity with his other classics, Independence Day, etc. I disagree with other reviewers who think these stories are cast-offs from abandoned novels; each is wonderfully complete in itself. I also disagree with another reviewer who thinks these stories are not appropriately set in Paris - it seems to me that they could ONLY occur in Paris. Ford is never a "fun read," and so much the better for it, and at least for this reader, induces anxiety as one sees parts of oneself in these sad tales.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on August 01, 2008)