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Travel Book Review: The Paris Novel by Ruth Reichl

The Paris Novel by Ruth Reichl -- the book cover.

To read Ruth Reichl is to read a writer fully engaged with all of her senses. Her prose is lush in the best way, with descriptions that proffer a strong point of view. Chapter one of The Paris Novel opens with, “Lilacs, rain, a hint of bitter chocolate: Stella sniffed the air as she entered the small shop, enjoying the soft golden light that enfolded her. A bell pealed, an old-fashioned sound that gave her the oddest feeling, as if she had stepped off the Paris sidewalk and straight out of time.”

Isn’t it gorgeous? If you like that, just wait until you read her descriptions of the food Stella eats in Paris. Before becoming a novelist, Reichl was the editor-in-chief at Gourmet Magazine for a decade, a restaurant critic for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, where she was also a food editor. Along the way, she’s won six James Beard Awards. 

Meet Stella

We meet Stella on her first day in Paris at a shop called Robes des Rêves, or Dream Dresses in English. While she eyes a dress, the shopkeeper informs Stella that there is another dress, one that has been waiting for her for a very long time. She brings out a long box from the back room. Then, she takes Stella by the hand and pulls her into the dressing room. Once the 1950s, gauzy, black, $6,000 dress is on Stella, the “slim, boyish Stella” disappears. “In her place stood an exotic creature who looked as if an aria – ‘Casta Diva, perhaps – would come pouring out when she opened her mouth.”

I have never cared so much about a character in a novel buying a dress. Stella is repressed and regimented, cautious and frugal. She’s a copy editor for a small literary firm in New York City who would never have adventured to Paris had it not been for the odd inheritance her mother left her, “a one-way plane ticket and a note reading ‘Go to Paris.’” There is no way she’s buying the dress until she does. In that dress, her adventures begin.  

Meet Paris

Reichl’s Paris in The Paris Novel isn’t quite what you’ll find when you travel there today. I think the city is still full of beauty, charm, and itself, but now it has McDonald’s and Krispy Kreme. The story is set in the 1980s. Some of its characters share memories that reach back as far as the ‘20s. In her NPR Weekend Edition Saturday interview with Scott Simon, Reichl said she wanted the American dream of Paris that existed in both the ‘80s when the dollar was strong and the franc weak, and the ‘20s, the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. 

As I read The Paris Novel, I wanted to return to Paris and found reasons to return to Paris. Before the dress encounter, Stella visits the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Luxembourg Gardens, and Versailles. I’ve been to the first two but not the last two. Isn’t that a shame?

Stella takes a boat ride down the Seine, which I’ve never done. She goes to Père Lachaise cemetery to see the graves of Colette, Molière, and Oscar Wilde. I’ve never been. An entire Week in Paris itinerary can be constructed based on the locations and restaurants that make an appearance in The Paris Novel.

Perhaps two of the most significant story locations in The Paris Novel are the legendary Shakespeare & Co. and the Jeu de Paume Museum. Stella becomes a Tumbleweed at the bookstore. Tumbleweeds are writers whom George Whitman, the founder of Shakespeare & Co., allowed to stay in the store free of charge. At the Jeu de Paume Museum, Stella has a very important encounter with a work of art. 

Read The Paris Novel

The four books I purchased from Mosaic Books stacked in front of a Mosaic Books bag.
The stack of books I bought at Mosaic Books, including The Paris Novel.

The Paris Novel is the perfect summer read. It’s enchanting, fun, and hard to put down. Consider yourself warned, though: By the book’s end, chances are good that you’ll want to go to Paris. You might want to bring the book along and re-read it on your flight to the City of Lights.

P.S. I encountered The Paris Novel at the marvelous Mosaic Books in Kelowna, B.C., and decided that I had to have it.

The Paris Novel by Ruth Reichl
Random House
278 pp.
Released Apr 23, 2024

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