‘Paris,’ once again, has fallen into wrong hands
Edward Rutherfurd’s new historical novel, his eighth multigenerational blockbuster, is an epic snooze: a family chronicle whose one-dimensional characters and banal historic episodes fail to sustain any dramatic momentum despite seven centuries of history at the author’s disposal.
The Reign of Boredom starts on the first page. “Paris,” it begins. “City of love. City of dreams. City of splendor.”
The year is 1875, and we’re soon introduced to a young aristocrat, a “fair-haired, blue-eyed” 3-year-old who likes to sing – what else? – “Frere Jacques.” This is Roland de Cygne, whose name dates back to the horn-blowing hero of the great epic poem “Song of Roland.” According to the priest charged with tutoring the lad, God has great things in store for this noble toddler.
Meanwhile, the Devil is making plans of his own. A gaunt-faced, God-hating, radical shrew tells her own young child, Jacques Le Sourd, about the death of his father. One of the revolutionary Communards who briefly took over the French government in 1871, he was executed by a firing squad led by a typical aristocrat, the Vicomte de Cygne. The boy’s mission is clear: He must grow up to kill the aristocratic heir Roland.
With this bedrock plot locked in place, the novel follows the fates of several families over the course of French history. There’s the bourgeois merchant family headed by Jules Blanchard, who operates a department store named Josephine – nominally in honor of Napoleon’s mistress but actually in honor of his own. And there’s the working-class Gascon family, represented mainly by the strapping, handsome, hardworking Thomas and his rakish brother Luc.
Like Billy Pilgrim, the readers of Paris quickly become unstuck in time, deposited chapter by chapter in some new French era where they witness the ancestors of some of these families dealing with the struggles of their age.
We meet the Renards in one century and the Foxes in another; along the way, we discover they are from the same clan: The Renards, faithful Protestants, escaped the Catholic Louis XIV in 1685 by moving to England and changing their name to Fox before moving back to their native country years later.
In 1462, Jean Le Sourd, a veritable king of thieves, meets his comeuppance when he tries to rob Guy de Cygne, an honest visitor to the corrupt, plague-infested city still recovering from the battle with England.
Later, during the French Revolution, the evil widow Le Sourd happily rats out the devout Christian aristocrats Etienne de Cygne and his wife to Robespierre, who promptly puts them in the Bastille; a kindly Dr. Blanchard intercedes to offer his help.
A picture emerges over the course of 800 pages: Not only does history repeat itself, but a man’s class is his destiny. History is the struggle between lazy, resentful slobs at the bottom trying to ruin the party for those at the top.
The problem, though, isn’t Rutherfurd’s snobbery. It’s his storytelling. He isn’t a novelist; he’s a docent, shoehorning facts into every scene and conversation. A passing painter describes what realism is. Monsieur Gustave Eiffel lectures young Thomas Gascon on the structural engineering of his new tower. The artist Marc Blanchard describes the history of Paris to an American friend: “So we have, for instance, the ancient Ile de la Cite, and the Montagne Sainte-Genevieve where the university is, which was once a Roman forum.”
Also, aside from the de Cygne-Le Sourd death match, characters throughout this history keep facing the same obstacles: the forbidden love of a Catholic and a Protestant, mainly, or children born out of wedlock or through adulterous liaisons. Alas, all the set changes in the world can’t save this corny, repetitious chronicle from imploding. Paris, once again, has fallen into the wrong hands.