Wednesday, February 1, 2012
The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen
Henrietta Mountjoy is meant to spend the day in Paris viewing attractions, her first choice being the Trocadero, as a break before reaching Mentone. Arriving at Mme Fisher's house on a quiet side street she discovers that she is not the only child visiting that day but she is good-natured and understanding. Leopold, with his skinny legs, is waiting to meet another woman, his birth mother. While Miss Fisher is upstairs tending to her chronically ill mother who holds court in her bedroom, Leopold mischievously roots through her bag and discovers three envelopes. One containing a letter from his adoptive parents, the second from Henrietta's grandmother and the third, postmarked from Berlin, is from his birth mother but is empty. Of course Leopold reads the letters and has his eyes opened even wider to his situation.
In the middle section of the book, Bowen takes the reader back in time to when Karen Michaelis and Ray Forrestier are engaged, as is Naomi Fisher and Max Ebhart. Barely out of school, the young ladies are aware that their destiny is to run a respectable house, to provide children and a layer of status for their future husbands. But one of these two women seeks, if only briefly, to indulge not only her heart but her sexuality in a daring way prior to holy matrimony. Considering this novel was published in 1935, it's quite an illicit storyline, but not to worry, there are enough glances and sniffs regarding class to keep the tone quite respectable. Although, should you think this novel rips at the seams with buttons and bows, tea and cake, panelling and fripperies, think again! There is a tragic twist that is quite brutal in the writing and was rather shocking as I didn't see it coming despite being riveted by every word. I'll just mention that this is not a book to be plowed through, if you're looking for a quick read then grab something else. My hope though is that you're intrigued enough to seek out this magnificently written story for yourself so I will leave the plot there.
The last section of the book brings the reader back to the present and the end of an emotion filled day. For everyone involved their lives will never be the same. But as the front door opens at the house in Paris and its occupants step outside, you feel yourself breathing in the cool night's air and the open space that is their future. And once you've read the last page there is nothing to do but be in awe of Elizabeth Bowen and her masterful way with the written word.