It is well-known how the ambitious “beaver” Baron Haussmann implemented Emperor Napoleon III’s vision of a modernised Paris. Elegant C19 classical boulevards replaced insanitary slums and overcrowded alleys dating from medieval times. On reflection, the wide new avenues must also have required the demolition of sound buildings, some of historic interest, destroying close-knit, thriving communities in the process. Not all the 350,000 people displaced needed to be rehoused, or benefited from the upheaval.
Rose Bazelet, the heroine of this novel, is one such person. Living her entire life in central Paris, mostly in the family home of her husband in the Rue Childebert, of which photographs can still be found on the internet, she fondly imagines that her house will be protected by its proximity to the ancient Church of St Germain-des-Prés. It is a shock to the whole community when the letters arrive, bluntly announcing the planned demolition of their properties. All resign themselves to accepting the compensation offered to go and start a new life, as Rose’s own brother has already done in another district already razed for redevelopment. Unable to leave a house suffused with memories of her husband and son, Rose has other plans, so we find her hiding in the basement, reading treasured letters, revisiting her past life, and writing a few unexpected confessions to the husband to whom she still feels exceptionally close a decade after this premature death.
This novel is at its best in powerful descriptions of the vast building sites which resemble war zones, where all the old landmarks have be obliterated, leaving only gigantic holes bordered by unstable ruins with hanging strips of wallpaper, doors swinging on hinges and steps spiralling into a void – hallucinatory images. The author weaves the main points in Rose’s essentially narrow bourgeois life with actual historical events: the painful birth of the daughter Violette with whom she never manages to bond takes place against the backdrop of street riots, part of the July 1830 uprising to oust the Bourbon king Charles X. The bookseller who rents a premise on her ground floor introduces the widowed Rose to the best-selling book at first considered such an outrage to public morals and religions that its publication was blocked: Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, no less. The pervading sense of nostalgia, both for a lost community and way of life, mingled with longing for those one has loved, is very strong. We also see how Rose’s personality develops in later life, as her experiences make her both more open minded and self aware.
This may be too saccharine and mawkish at times for some tastes, although it could be argued that the tone is authentic for a C19 woman who has led an essentially sheltered, conventional, comfortable life with limited experience and education. However, a sudden switch to the shocking or macabre, perhaps when least expected, adds some depth and bite to the tale.
I was for the most past irritated by Rose’s inability to accept reality like everyone else, and move on. However, apart from the fact that the plot obviously depends on this, I have to admit that Tatiana de Rosnay succeeds in evoking empathy with Rose rather than simply regarding her as self-absorbed, even selfish. A final twist also adds to the aspects for discussion which make this a fruitful choice for a book group. I read it in French translated from English (the author is Anglo-French), which gave it a more authentic feel.