Paris has been good and bad to the aristocratic de Cygne family over the centuries. While one generation was welcome at the nearby court of Versailles, another faced the guillotine during the Reign of Terror.
Edward Rutherfurd’s latest historical novel tracks the de Cygnes and a few other families in Paris from 1261 to 1968 as the city evolves from a medieval outpost to world-class metropolis. His primary focus is on the cohort born later in the 19th century who grew up to witness the existential threat to Paris in two world wars. Aside from the noble de Cygnes, the book follows the merchant Blanchard family, the working-class Gascons and the lefty Le Sourd clan. Action jumps from their day to points in the past. The fates of the families intersect over the centuries like lines on a Paris subway map.
The churches, gardens and back alleys of long-ago Paris are revealed through the characters’ eyes. And they bump into a few famous people along the way: Cardinal Richelieu plots away. Marc Chagall doodles on a tablecloth, and Gustave Eiffel explains the engineering behind his tower.
Rutherfurd spends time up and down the social ladder in Paris, but he seems to prefer the chateau over the hovel. The wealthier characters tend to be more fully drawn. And with so many characters over so many centuries, some seem to merely exist to keep some plot thread moving or to show off some facet of the city.
Rutherfurd does provide good glimpses of Paris as it was, like the old Knights Templar fortress and a stumpy Eiffel Tower halfway finished. But since he’s time-jumping, the author has to redraw Paris again and again. He sometimes leans heavily on expository dialogue to do the work, like this father-son exchange from 1887:
“Did you know that the original Louvre was just a small medieval fort guarding the river, in the corner of the present palace?” his father inquired casually.
“Yes,” Roland replied. “It was just outside the old city wall of King Philippe Auguste.”
Sometimes, the book seems burdened by the weight of all its scenes and subplots. But Rutherfurd takes it up a notch in the last part of the book, which is set in occupied Paris during World War II. In this long, climactic section, Rutherfurd succeeds best at describing not just the buildings and gardens of Paris, but also reflecting the mood of the city under Nazi rule. Some of the characters respond heroically, another cynically, leading to a familial reckoning that is tense and enjoyable to read.
Michael Hill reviewed this book for the Associated Press.