If you have ever lived in the midst of an urban renovation – the building of the metro in Washington, D.C. or a bridge replacement in Annapolis, for example – the inconvenience may have seemed secondary to the loss of favorite sites that were demolished to make way for progress. But nothing can compare to losing the family home. In The House I Loved, Tatiana De Rosnay targets Baron Haussman’s renovation of Paris under the reign of Emperor Napoleon III in the 1850s through the eyes of one woman about to lose everything.
As the small medieval streets are demolished to create the magnificent Boulevard St. Germain, one resident has not abandoned her home and relocated with the others. Rose, a fifty-nine year old widow, is determined to stay in the house where her husband’s family has thrived for generations – and die with its demolition. After shipping her furniture and clothes to her daughter’s home in Tours, she hides in the basement of her house, writing a letter to her dead husband, reminiscing about the small streets, shops, and neighbors that formed their lives – and rereading a box of precious letters from the past.
Through Rose’s thoughts and letters, De Rosnay slowly reveals the family’s history, and Rose’s narrative becomes the vehicle for educating the reader about an important part of Parisian history. The French author uses poignant scenes and beautiful descriptions to once again reveal more of the Paris she loves.
Rose’s love story is desperate and sad, with a slower pace than De Rosnay’s other books (A Secret Kept and Sarah’s Key), and not as compelling as the information about the modernization of Paris between 1853 and 1870. Under Haussman’s supervision, a new sewer system was installed and medieval side streets were replaced with modern wide straight avenues, destroying over 20,000 homes along the way.
After reading the book and remembering my stroll along the boulevard, I wanted to know more about Baron Haussman, the urban planner who changed the face of Paris – revered by some, thought of as a bully by others.
As for The House I Loved, the book led me back to Paris and stirred some thoughts on historic preservation.