Books

When you’re unhappy, what’s your Paris?

The Light of Paris. Eleanor Brown. Putnam. 320 pages. $26.
The Light of Paris. Eleanor Brown. Putnam. 320 pages. $26.

Mothers and daughters have been clashing in fiction and real life now and forever, and the tradition continues happily (at least for readers) in Eleanor Brown’s new novel.

Brown recognizes that push and pull that drives families — and drives them crazy. In her first novel, the charming “The Weird Sisters,” three adult sisters move back in with their parents and have to renegotiate tricky boundaries. In “The Light of Paris,” unhappily married Madeleine leaves her sterile home in Chicago to return to her Southern hometown of Magnolia (“in between Memphis and Little Rock”) ostensibly to visit her society-obsessed, disapproving mother. Really, though, Madeleine can’t stand another second with her controlling, dismissive husband, Phillip, who disdains her desire to paint, chastises her when she gains weight and demands complete obedience to his climbing-the-corporate-ladder agenda.

Going through her mother’s house, though, Madeleine comes across her grandmother’s diaries. She only remembers a stern older woman every bit as unyielding as Madeleine’s own mother, who pushed her daughter into the debutante world, where Madeleine felt “a little shabbier, a little chunkier, a little frizzier.” But reading her young grandmother’s words reveals a different story: That girl, Marjie, once rebelled against her family, fled an arranged marriage and lived and worked in Paris.

The novel’s questions are simple: Why did Marjie, who loved Paris so dearly, return to the suffocating society of her family — and will Madeleine find the courage to live the life she wants? The answers to Marjie’s questions are more mysterious; the fate of Madeleine, charmed by the way Magnolia has redefined itself as a vibrant arts community, is never truly in doubt.

But Brown’s empathy for these women who find themselves outcasts is endearing, and watching Madeleine blossom as she gradually begins to create her own Paris is a delight. “I blamed Phillip,” she thinks, “but I had let it happen.” “The Light in Paris” argues that if we follow our hearts and forgive ourselves, we will reap rewards.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.

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