I started reading True Pleasures - A Memoir of Women in Paris before we left for our trip in September and have only just finished it now so my reading has been a little disjointed - but fortunately I think this is the sort of book that lends itself to the "dipping" style of reading.
The Australian author of the book has reached a crossroads in her life - feeling unsatisfied with her career and feeling like there must be "something more" she heads to Paris to spend 3 weeks researching and reflecting on the lives of influential women who have connected with and impacted on that city in some way:
Through this strange period of reading and working and contemplating their past and my future, the women of Paris - wild, noble, brave, bad, strong, foolish - came to represent important things to me: the grand scale that an individual can achieve; the beautiful arc that a finished life can describe; the radiant, limitless scope of female potentiality.
And I found that the individual stories of these women's lives did not exist in isolation, but connected across time and space, like threads in the grand narrative tapestry that is the story of Paris itself.
Holdforth divides the book into chapters with each focusing on a particular woman relevant to the story of Paris - and women whose stories are interconnected with that of Paris. Women such as Colette, Nancy Mitford, Edith Wharton, Coco Chanel, George Sand and Madame de Pompadour are all explored in greater or lesser detail as well as many others.
I must admit I was drawn to this book mainly because I was about to go to Paris for the first time and I was hungry to consume as much reading material as I could about this city before I arrived there - but I an actually glad that I finished this book after coming back from my trip - it somehow meant more to me being able to have images in my mind of some of the places the author describes.
I really enjoyed the way the author talks about her own history with Paris - as well as her history in Australia - for me this provided a great context for her story and why she was on this crusade to discover more about the women of Paris's history and what drove them. However, I am able to see that some of her narrative may be confusing and boring for non-Australian readers. As an Aussie girl I didn't have that problem though and I enjoyed reading Holdforth's comparisons of the two cultures:
In Australia we do girls very well: young, fresh, ignorant, sexy girls. Not that I was one of them. I was pale and bookish and wore black tights in winter and secondhand sixties' frocks in summer. In France they like women, grown-up women. Ellen once said to me that the French don't consider a women starts to become interesting until she is thirty-five years old.
And with my 35th Birthday approaching I am starting to realise why I connected with Paris so well...
I found the stories of the individual women interesting and the little snippets that Holdforth has put into her book have only made me want to go out and read more about each of them. I found the book a great combination of history and fact and personal reflection and thought:
If Paris is a feast, then I'm still hungry. I haven't yet had my fill: in fact, I doubt I will ever be sated. That's why I'll just have to keep coming back.
I couldn't agree more.