A young woman on her own in Paris for a year, living in a grand but faded Left Bank mansion-turned-rooming-house, meets a mysterious young man who captures her heart. From the Luxembourg Gardens to the Ile Saint-Louis, they wander the city together, taking shelter in cafes in the rain and spending overheated nights in her tunnel-like room with a balcony that overlooks the garden.
As a coming-of-age novel, It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris might sound as if its theme is rather well-trod, but the title puts you on notice. This is no saccharine tale of awakening. Rather, it’s a clear-eyed recasting of a classic storyline executed with confidence and just enough city-of-lights magic by Miami author Patricia Engel to conjure up something that manages to be familiar and new. This is a novel to get lost in.
Lita del Cielo is the daughter of two Colombian orphans who made up their last name –—it means “of the sky” — just as they created a different life for themselves and their children in the United States. Their impressive climb to success started with floor-sweeping at night and a kiosk selling arepas by day and has resulted in a global food distribution company, with Lita’s father nicknamed the King of Latin Foods and her mother called Our Lady of New Jersey for the never-ending helping hand she extends to new arrivals.
But Lita chafes under the weight of her parents’ expectations that the life they’ve built should be more than enough for her. She wrangles permission from them for a year “off” to explore Paris while she takes classes. Since her father won’t let her live alone, she secures a room in the crumbling mansion called “The House of Stars” run by Seraphine, a countess nearing 90 with kohl-lined eyes and a mahogany sleigh bed she rarely leaves. The house is populated by other young, wealthy women on various types of sabbaticals from their real lives. Most are self-declared artists with bloodlines they brag about, “ waving the family crest rings on their fingers.” Lita is admitted to this company mostly on the strength of her family money, nouveau though it might be.
She is ripe for a big change — why go to Paris otherwise? — and so when she meets the elusive, off-kilter Cato, she is smitten. The more he holds her off, the more she wants to be with him. She moves into his home outside the city, abandoning her classes, playing house with him. It’s a dizzying time until complications set in.
She learns he is sick, his lungs diseased by the winds of Chernobyl when he was child. Additionally troubling: He’s the son of Antoine de Manou, a notorious political figure who advocates keeping all foreigners out of France.
This disaster-in-the-making Lita refuses to see; she’s filled with the power of young love. But how true is her love when all the time, the clock is ticking on her year? What will she do when her time is up? Renounce the life and fortune that her parents worked so hard to build? Stay in Paris with Cato?
Engel’s spare writing — she teaches at the University of Miami and her debut, Vida, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2010 — offers a needed counterweight to the romance of the story and setting. Engel crafts her sentences with narrowed eyes and a sardonic air, heavy on observation, discerning in details. A waiter on the prowl for sex scratches his back on the edge of Lita’s doorway like a cat. Two French girls wear “nearly identical knee-grazing floral dresses” with black bras peeking out, barely covering breasts they purchased together in Rio the year before because it was the fashion. And Cato has a marbled complexion, scruffy brown hair that looks as though he cut it himself “while driving or frying eggs” and a misaligned smile.
For Lita, worldly and lonely, ripe for passion and adventure, this world and Cato in particular are the answer to a question she didn’t know she was asking. Who is she really, besides the daughter of immigrants and a child of privilege?
Near the beginning of the book, during a conversation with friends at a Paris flea market, someone tells Lita that her original reason for coming to France — to get an education — is false. “You came for a story,” the friend tells her.
He’s right about Lita and, by extension, about us. We’re here for a story, too, the sort of full-on, hurts-so-good tale of transformation that Engel delivers with a surprising mix of tenderness and skepticism. And even if we know generally where Engel is leading us, she reminds us: sometimes the journey is the point.
Amy Driscoll is a Miami Herald editor.