Book chat: ‘Seven Letters from Paris’ by Samantha Verant

Seven Letters from ParisTwenty years after they shared one fateful weekend in Paris, Samantha and Jean-Luc are separated by an ocean and wealth of varying experiences. Samantha herself is in a rut — 40 and jobless, staring down an impending divorce, living back with her parents as she nervously tackles her debt.

When Sam stumbles upon a series of letters Jean-Luc sent after she returned to college in America, the passion and connection they shared decades ago comes flooding back to her. She realizes she hasn’t felt that way before or since — but never actually responded to her French Romeo. At all.

Though she believes her apology comes a little too late, she’s able to find Jean-Luc online and sends him the answer she feels he was owed in the ’80s by way of a blog. Their emails lead to phone calls, and calls expand to talk of visiting in person. Is she crazy to leave California for France to see if the connection they once shared has stood the test of time?

Maybe. But she has nothing to lose, and all the world to gain.

Samantha Verant’s memoir Seven Letters from Paris is the romantic, entertaining story of how she reconnected with the love of her life when the odds certainly seemed stacked against them. Their story is an improbable one: a young American woman and French rocket scientist randomly meet at a cafe when Sam and a friend visit Paris in the late ’80s. After they share a weekend exploring the city, Jean-Luc falls completely in love . . . and Samantha disappears. He sends seven letters to her address at an American university but never hears from her again.

Until, one day, he does.

I’ll just come out and say that I’m a huge fan of serendipity. I love stories that connect lovers who, by all logic, should not have found one another; I adore tales of fate stepping in to guide the lives of unlikely people. Sam and Jean-Luc live an ocean and a continent apart — and the idea that they could randomly meet on a sidewalk, lose touch and find each other again after 20 years, several marriages, children and so on was nothing short of amazing.

Where the story could have become schmaltzy and boring, Samantha’s self-deprecating humor and humble roots were endearing and kept me rooting for her from start to finish. As she sheds her dog-walking skin back in California and takes a chance on visiting Jean-Luc, I was breathless with anticipation of their meeting once again. Ah, true love.

Are Jean-Luc’s overtures a bit over-the-top? Sure. But as Sam points out often, the standard for romance in France is, um, a bit different than what we might expect of courtship here in the U.S. She is wooed quite thoroughly by her older scientist — and who could blame her? I mean, really.

A quick and engaging read, Seven Letters from Paris  was just the sort of story I needed to help break me out of my reading slump. I loved Sam and Jean-Luc — and especially loved them together. I’ve heard rumors that we may get a follow-up on their new life together in France (not a spoiler!) . . . I’ll just be over here with my coffee and macaron, waiting.

4 out of 5

Pub: October 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Advance copy provided by publisher for review consideration

Book review: ‘Paris In Love’ by Eloisa James

Paris In LoveI love daydreaming about Paris.

It’s one of my favorite pastimes, in fact. The people, the architecture, the desserts . . . all tantalizing. Intoxicating. Absorbing. If I had the funds and vacation time (both quite elusive these days), I’d be on a transcontinental flight faster than you can say macaron.

But alas. Until I can sip wine beneath the Eiffel Tower in person, I’ll have to settle for delightful stories like Eloisa James’ memoir Paris In Love.

After surviving cancer shortly after her mother recently died of the disease, Eloisa James convinces her husband, son and daughter to move abroad for a year to discover what the Parisian life is all about. With Anna and Luca settled in a new school and Alessandro learning the local ropes, Eloisa settles in to absorb the city and work on several books.

A popular and prolific romance novelist, Eloisa makes no bones about her French journey: though she may wish she and her family came away from the experience with amazing “life lessons” or a greater appreciation for family or the passage of time, what their year abroad really taught her was to try and be in the moment. Life is just life. Told as a series of vignettes, Paris In Love is a compilation of her skillfully-crafted Facebook and Twitter updates from their time in the City of Light — occasionally expanded into short essays about subjects as diverse as Anna’s burgeoning friendships, French food, a nearby dance school and more.

It was a different reading experience — and a quick one. James’ thoughts are shared in paragraph-long snippets that, while chronological, don’t necessarily connect from one page to the next. The results felt like reading someone’s travel journal: little glimpses of day-to-day life for a stranger in a strange land, trying to blend with the locals while getting some work done. The most charming passages focused on Luca and Anna, Alessandro and Eloisa’s children, and I looked forward to hearing about their ex-pat adventures in school.

Francophiles and armchair travelers will find Paris In Love to be a fast, delightful read — and James’ fans will welcome an opportunity to know the author better through her memoir. If Paris lacks sparkle for you, you’ll likely find the descriptions hum-drum — but if you’re looking to escape to the other side of the Atlantic for a few hours, James’ invitation to come along is a fun one.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0812981901 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘In The Bag’ by Kate Klise

Armchair travelers rejoice! Kate Klise has penned a funny, light and speedy read transporting readers through Madrid and Paris with two love stories entertaining enough for me to devour the whole thing on a three-hour train ride. And I have no regrets.

“A successful chef and single mother, Daisy Sprinkle is on vacation with her teenage daughter, Coco, who picks up the wrong duffle bag at the airport. That situation is not improved by the note Daisy finds tucked into her carry-on, apparently from the man in 13-C. Daisy is in no mood for secret admirer notes or dinner dates. Or even men, for that matter.

“Andrew doesn’t know what possessed him to do something like that. Hitting on strange women on airplanes is definitely not his typical style. But there was something about the woman in 6-B that could not be ignored. Of course, now he has no time to think about her, since his son Webb seems to have made off with a budding fashionista’s luggage.

“Determined to make the best of a bad situation, Daisy cooks up a plan to calm her daughter’s panic over the lost bag with a week of fabulous food, shopping, and museum hopping. Andrew is busy working on his latest project and hoping Webb finds enough to entertain himself. Little do they know the teens are making their own plan. . . one that will ultimately reunite Ms. 6-B and Mr. 13-C.” (Goodreads)

If In The Bag sounds like a kooky novel relying on uncanny coincidences to further the plot, you’re right — and I liked it. Though far from unpredictable, it’s easy to see how fate plays a role in joining together four people; the whole novel has a sort of “Sleepless In Seattle” feel to it. You know what I mean? Like everything is destined to work out, but only the audience can see it. And we’re along for the ride.

Good thing I love “Sleepless In Seattle.”

Though Coco’s typical-teenage-character whining (“Mooooom! You’re ruining my life!“) nonsense took a while to stomach, I eventually took a shine to her. Both Coco and Daisy are struggling to sort out their roles in the mother-daughter dynamic, especially as Coco gets older and prepares for college. Their trip to Paris is supposed to be a chance to reconnect and recharge their batteries, especially for Daisy, but nothing seems to be going their way.

After a luggage mix-up, they’re linked to Andrew and Webb, a handsome father-son pair, and it’s not complicated to see that Teen Girl A will feel a spark with Teen Boy B. Communicating exclusively through email, In The Bag focuses often on the role of digital courtship versus the more traditional ways of getting to know someone (like, you know, in person). Daisy is wary of technology while Andrew embraces it; Coco and Webb are, of course, glued to whatever Internet cafe they can find abroad. I liked the explorations of “modern” courtship — they made sense, and Klise wasn’t heavy-handed about it. The whole “OMG people don’t really talk anymore” overtures popping up in contemporary fiction are getting stale.

Those who love a side of scenery, French food and wicked descriptions of Europe with their love stories will definitely find plenty to enjoy in In The Bag. Flipping between sunny Madrid and romantic Paris, it’s the sort of novel that will have you wanting to pack a bag immediately. (Just hope it doesn’t get lost.) Though I got more of a sense of France than Spain, that’s probably because Webb spent his time in Madrid talking to Coco in Paris — so we see less of the city through his eyes. Still, the travel aspects were fun, and I enjoyed the “Americans abroad” perspective.

In The Bag definitely has crossover appeal. Adult readers and chick lit lovers will relate to the harried-parents-doing-the-best-they-can relationship between Andrew and Daisy; teens have plenty to get their blood pumpin’ regarding the sweet but flirtatious evolution of Webb and Coco’s emails. By the time the pair meet face-to-face, I was grinning — I mean, who wouldn’t root for those crazy kids? And when things don’t go exactly as planned, I could sympathize. For as much as I had to suspend disbelief at points, Coco and Webb’s meeting was painfully realistic.

Though I sometimes get twitchy about labeling something a “summer read” (it can just seem dismissive), that’s exactly how I would describe In The Bag: light-hearted fiction that can be easily consumed while working on a tan. It doesn’t demand too much of you. It can be read in chunks and set aside for days or gobbled up all at once; either way, it doesn’t lose its charm. It’s fun and frothy. And that cover is too cute.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062108050 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

La Vie En Fleurs: The City of Light in ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’

A fellow blogger and fellow Meg (good name!) created a feature I’m thrilled to run with: Literary Locales, which focuses on the settings of the books we’re currently reading. Visit her site to join in the fun.

As I’m currently thick in the middle of the Indie Lit Award’s Fiction shortlist for judging in March, you might have noticed a dearth of book reviews around here — but I promise my reading life is alive and well! I’m just having to stay focused. Nose to the grindstone and all that.

My latest read is Lynn Sheene’s The Last Time I Saw Paris, set in Nazi-occupied Paris during the 1940s. It’s a dangerous and unsteady time for the French when a young, beautiful American socialite arrives to make a fresh start. She’s swept into the Resistance movement and eventually falls in love, though fate drags her into endless turmoil before the book’s smash of a conclusion. I was up early to finish it before work Wednesday, determined to learn Claire’s fate before I was back at my desk.

Though I enjoyed the story (and will have a review coming after the Indie Lit Awards’ Fiction winner is announced in March), the character I actually loved best in The Last Time I Saw Paris was Paris itself. Described as steadfast, loyal and lovely — even in the darkest of times — the novel only made my desire to visit the City of Light more powerful. The descriptions of Parisian cafes and blossoms in the spring were tantalizing, and I could clearly picture the awful juxtaposition of Hitler’s forces and the tender blooms of new trees come April.

When Claire arrives in Paris, she accepts temporary work at a flower shop — La Vie En Fleurs, or “Life In Bloom” — and studies the art under the stoic eye of Madame Palain. As the story progresses, La Vie En Fleurs’ role becomes increasingly important — and I could almost smell the fragrant blooms Claire assembled as she passed through dangerous Nazi-occupied zones. It was intoxicating, and now I’m determined to visit a Parisian flower shop myself.

{Having never been to Paris (sadly!),
the lovely photos above are copyright their respective owners.
Click each image for the original file and additional information.

Book review: ‘French Lessons’ by Ellen Sussman

Three French tutors meet with pupils one day in Paris, and the lessons and experiences they share — some isolating; some intimate — come to define them in unexpected ways.

Ellen Sussman’s French Lessons was . . . fine. Have you ever felt that way about a book? Neutral, vanilla, “meh.” I read it quickly and enjoyed it well enough at the time, but I’ve delayed writing this review. Two weeks later and I’m sitting here with my head cocked to one side, finding myself with little to say about it.

Sussman’s writing is lyrical, but I got to know her characters in such a limited, superficial way that no one person has stuck with me. Weeks after finishing, I had to physically open the book to remember anyone’s name. That doesn’t bode well. I tweeted a few weeks back that I never thought a book about sex — and make no mistake: this one oozes with trysts, sensuality and attraction — could be so dull.

Nico was probably my favorite character, but only because he was the one person I got to know. His love for Chantal, a fellow Parisian and tutor, was touching at times — and I did like the book’s conclusion. But everyone else was either selfish and dull or ridiculous and campy. I hated and felt no empathy for Josie, a grief-stricken teacher dealing with the death of her married (and not to her, natch) lover. If anything, I only felt sharp twinges of anger toward her.

But those were fleeting. I waited for French Lessons to make me feel something, especially since I’m caught up in a tailwind of obsession with Paris at the moment. (By the way, I think I’ve narrowed my big trip down to France. Hence why I eagerly plucked a copy of this one from my bookshelves.) But in the end, all I felt was a listless desire for this book to be over.

The book’s one strength is the gorgeous portrayal of Paris, a character unto itself. I could feel the breeze ruffling my hair from atop the Eiffel Tower and taste the warm goodness of a croissant while seated at a French cafe. In Sussman’s hands, the city becomes the glittering and glamorous array I imagine it to be. It’s the characters — the human characters — that leave much to be desired.

I did finish French Lessons, though. And I have no problem tossing books aside, so I give it points for that. But unless you’re a diehard francophile, I would probably head for more alluring pastures.

2.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 034552277X ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from a blog giveaway

Book review: ‘Tout Sweet’ by Karen Wheeler

Finding herself single and adrift in her thirties, Karen Wheeler is ready for a change. After some recon abroad, she throws away a lucrative career as a fashion editor to move into a dilapidated home in France. It’s there that she meets a colorful array of characters, attempts to find footing with her writing career — and just might get another shot at romance.

Karen Wheeler’s Tout Sweet: Hanging Up My High Heels for a New Life in France is candid memoir detailing the difficulties, excitement and intrigue of uprooting one’s life in the quintessential search for something more. Karen is like many heroines — especially Frances Mayes, author of Under The Tuscan Sun. As the film is one of my all-time favorites, I couldn’t help but compare Wheeler’s story to Mayes’. And though this tale brings us to France instead of Italy, the root is the same: single woman craving adventure buys an old home in a beautiful, rural country and must restore the property . . . and her own heart.

So what I’m saying? I’ve heard this one before. I don’t mean to seem callous and I appreciated Wheeler’s unique set of circumstances, but I struggled to find anything truly unique in Tout Sweet. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve been nose-first in countless books taking place in and around France lately, but I felt like . . . I don’t know. Like I wanted something exhilarating to happen, and it really didn’t. Wheeler’s writing is strong and her descriptions solid, but I guess I just felt a little bored by the whole thing. The pacing was slow and didn’t invite anything unexpected.

I struggled to really feel for Wheeler, too; even as the author was describing past heartbreak, especially in a poignant scene in La Rochelle, I never felt a tiny twinge of empathy for her. The text seemed strangely devoid of emotion. I don’t need to read about the narrator throwing herself at the feet of an ex-lover, exactly, but I wanted to know more about how she was truly coping with the loss of her love. Though that seemed to be the impetus for her flight from London, it’s sort of . . . glossed over. Ignored. Swept aside.

Maybe she didn’t want to dwell or make this a dull catalog of heartache. I can appreciate that. But the result was a story that didn’t stir my emotions at all.

But what I did like? Wheeler’s descriptions of the people of Poitou-Charentes, France, her adopted home. And I liked Wheeler’s candor when projects didn’t go her way — like the time she believed her French good enough to communicate with a contractor (or “artisan” — isn’t that fancy?), only to return to a painfully white paint job in her new home. (Not the look she was going for.) Unlike books that seem to feature heroines who flit in and out of life with nary a trouble, Wheeler certainly faced her share of obstacles — but didn’t let them defeat her. I admired her tenacious spirit and willingness to make such a big, bold change.

As a book, though, her story didn’t translate to a page-turner for me. I found myself setting it aside for days at a time, returning only occasionally to read a few pages — an unusual experience for me. If I’m not tearing through a book, desperate for more, then I typically take that as a sign that a story and I aren’t clicking. Though I liked Wheeler’s sharp British wit and enjoyed experiencing life in France from an Englishwoman’s view, it wasn’t enough to really compel me onward. Probably best for Francophiles and serious travel memoir buffs.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402261187 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘French Milk’ by Lucy Knisley

The people! The places! The food! Paris comes alive through the art and photographs of Lucy Knisley in French Milk, her memoir of one month spent in France with her mother in January 2007. The novel is her creative, personal travelogue of Parisian life that defined a pivotal time in her own life.

The novel is actually a graphic novel — graphic in the sense that it is hand-drawn by Knisley and is, in fact, a visual diary. Lucy, 22, is set to graduate from art school and, like many soon-to-be post-grads, is battling the dreaded nausea experienced when many students imagine leaving college and finding a job in The Real World. Lucy has lived independently in Chicago, where she has many creative friends and spends time with boyfriend John, but she chooses to spend the time after Christmas and between the start of her final semester in France. She and her mother embark on a grand adventure that takes them far from home as they battle language barriers, mysterious foods and homesickness — all while learning more about themselves.

So I’m obsessed with traveling and art, and when I first read a review of French Milk a month or two ago? I was all over this. But it wasn’t a book that made its way into my hands until just the right moment . . . and I’m so glad I just found it. It’s a fast read, obviously, considering it comes in at under 200 pages and is full of vivid, interesting black-and-white illustrations. Lucy’s narratives and art are offset by actual photographs from her trip, which I loved. Comparing her interpretations of scenes with real pictures was so fun to me.

By the time I finished French Milk — only about an hour or so after I’d started — I absolutely felt as though I’d snuck onto the plane with the mother and daughter duo and feasted on the same foie gras in the same cafes. Lucy is very honest and realistic about her growing pains — the fears she experiences as she leaves behind her young adulthood and prepares to enter a new phase in her life. As someone experiencing the same pangs, I really related to her. Immediately after graduating from college in 2007 — Lucy and I are the same age — I took a trip to Europe with my family, visiting England, Italy and Belgium. That vacation completely changed who I was a person, much in the same way that Lucy’s time in Paris fundamentally changed who she was — as a person and, I’m sure, as an artist.

Visually experiencing Lucy’s story was very different than reading about Lucy’s experiences — in a good way. I loved her sketches of the delicious food they consumed (and my stomach was grumbling the whole time, let me tell you) and felt like I, too, was standing on the Eiffel Tower as it swayed in a strong wind (terrifying!). I have very little experience with graphic novels — it’s limited to Art Spiegelman’s Maus and a few comic books an ex-boyfriend pushed on me — but I was open-minded about this one and wasn’t disappointed.

What did the story lack? Emotional resonance. What I felt while reading the book had less to do with Lucy’s reactions to what she saw, felt and tasted and much more to do with my own personal experiences in Europe. I enjoyed the novel for what it made me remember and what it showed me, but I would have loved to know more about what Lucy was really feeling about being apart from John — a stranger in a strange land. Learning about Americans’ traveling experiences abroad is a subject of total fascination for me, and I would have loved to see more about the cultural differences and funny anecdotes about language barriers.

But, then again, this was Lucy’s travel journal — not mine.

If you’re new to the graphic novel genre or just aren’t sure “seeing” a story this way is for you, I still encourage you to give French Milk a try. The subject matter — travel, glorious travel! — was enough to draw me in from the get-go. And I dare you to not want a big, healthy gulp of cold, sweet and delicious French dairy after closing this book! Francophiles and travel bugs will get special enjoyment out of this novel, too, and probably want to hop on Expedia to book their summer vacation after finishing. Speaking of which, a few travel websites are calling my name . . .

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 1416575340 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg