I desperately needed to get away and quietly sitting on my shelf for over a year, Liam Callanan’s Paris By The Book‘s red cover finally caught my attention and gave me a first class ticket to my favorite city. Callanan’s descriptions of Paris were as real as being there, as I relived walking the cobblestones streets, climbing up to Montmartre, and eating the buttery croissants.
Of course, the virus is everywhere these days, even in Paris, but escaping to a time and place before the pandemic spoiled everything in the city of Madeline and The Red Balloon offered a respite from reality.
Callahan creates a story around a Wisconsin woman with her two daughters who travel to Paris to find the husband/father who disappeared one morning, never returning from a jog. He was a writer who would sometimes go away for days to nurture his muse and overcome his creative burnout from tending to the boring essentials of daily life. He had not written a book in a long time, while his wife supported the family as a speech writer for a university. At first, his family thinks he just went away on one of his writeaways.
Months later, after finding an itinerary code in a box of cereal, Leah and her daughters follow Richard’s clue to Paris, where they think he might have gone. On the last day of their Paris vacation, they find a bookstore for sale and reinvent their lives. Always on the alert for Richard, the girls and Leah sometimes think they see him but he eludes them, as they carry on with their new lives in Paris.
The book teases with clues, keeping the reader off balance, wondering whether or not Richard is alive or in Paris. The suspense of the search lends impetus to the plot, yet it’s Callanan’s descriptions of the family’s new life in Paris keeping the mood sublime. Paris is practically perfect, and its problems can be easily overcome in the interest of living out the fantasy of owning a bookstore there. Callanan does solve the mystery of Richard in the end, but not as I had expected.
Books, of course, are central to the surroundings, as Callanan offers classic titles as well as children’s books stacked in Leah’s English language bookshop in Paris called The Late Edition. The famous Shakespeare and Company has a cameo in the book, and later the author explains in his afterward its significance as well as the real bookstore in Paris he almost bought.
Two famous children’s stories and their authors weave through the story – Ludwig Bemelmans with his famous Madeline stories and Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon, both the book and the movie. I had to stop to revisit both. The Red Balloon movie is on Amazon, with short clips on YouTube. Watch it and raise your spirits instantly.
Leah and Richard first meet and form a relationship over these children’s books; later they read the books and biographies of the authors to their daughters, and through the stories they pass on their love of Paris to their children. The dream is to visit Paris someday.
I read this book slowly. These days I have no place to hurry to, and finding a story with familiar scenes I can relish was a balm I was reluctant to end. Paris By The Book transported me to another place, another time, another life. It was nice to dream of being there for a while.