PARIS WAS THE PLACE, by Susan Conley, immediately appealed to me because of the title. I love books about Paris.
Susan Conley knows Paris. Not just the streets visitors tromp up and down; she knows the other places too, the areas where most people actually live and work. Her sense of place is pristine. She has managed to make me feel comfortable in The City of Light. She provides superb description and verse. And it is amazing.
Willow Pears is a young woman who’s been living in Paris for six months. She moved to Paris to be near her brother Luke and his partner. Luke’s been living in China for years; now settling down here in Paris. Willow is teaching poetry at the university where she has also just received a grant to visit India for research on a famous woman poet. And, now, she’s taken on even more; she’s about to start teaching at a detention center for girls. These girls are each hoping and praying for French asylum. Each girl has suffered dramatically.
It all sounds rather busy. And cut and dried. Far from it. Luke comes down with a mysterious illness that no one seems to be able to name. And Willow becomes way too close to one of the girls in her mentoring class. Gida is from India and is fraught with indignities. She’s been abused at home and abroad. And she has to prove to the courts that she is truly in danger if she is sent back to India. The lines between mentoring and mothering become blurred in Willie’s mind. And she begins to harbor feelings for Gida that could change all their lives forever.
Macon is Gida’s attorney. He and Willow meet and fall in love. Macon seems too good to be true. But he’s the real deal. Though he’s not been entirely open with Willow, all that changes when things begin heating up in Willow’s life.
At one point I almost decided to put this book aside. Why, you might ask? When Luke is finally diagnosed with an illness, I saw it taking over the story. And I was not ready for that to happen. But, I did pick it back up. Thank God. Because the best was yet to come.
I mentioned Willow had a grant to visit India. She goes to India. She’s after an interview with the mother of Sarojini Naidu. Now those of you who know your poetry will know who this ultra-famous woman is. Naidu is no longer living, but her mother is. The travel to meet with this mysterious woman kept me glued to the book. The travel scenes are some of the best you will find about India. This is the Indian interior. Trains, buses, and feet take Willow to her destination. Sarojini is a real poet who lived and was esteemed in India. She was known as The Nightingale of India: an activist for women. Her birthday is celebrated to this day, and is called “Women’s Day.” I am most interested in reading some of her poetry now that Conley has brought her to my attention.
So what is this story really about? It could easily be called The Price We Pay For Love. It’s about bonding, feeling a sense of place, and family. And finding out how far you would go for love; love of partner, spouse, sibling.
Susan Conley has also written a memoir. While she was living in Beijing, China several years ago, she discovered she had breast cancer. Imagine finding this while living abroad? THE FOREMOST GOOD FORTUNE won the Maine Literary Award for memoir. I can’t wait to read it. I’m sure she’s made China jump off the page as she did Paris and India.
Conley studied in Paris and taught poetry in the south of France some years ago. All this helped immeasurably with her sense of place. I am so looking forward to her next novel. She says it’s set in China.
You are going to want to put this one on your TBR list for as SOON as possible.
Thanks go out to my good friends at Knopf for this galley. I feel so grateful to have received this.