Friday, September 27, 2013

Paris Was the Place, by Susan Conley

Willow ("Willie") Pears is a 30-year-old American teacher living in Paris in 1989.  At the beginning of the book, Willie is just starting to work as a volunteer teacher at a center for girls who are seeking asylum in France. Her job is to teach them how to tell their stories movingly and convincingly when they have their court hearings. As she works with them, she becomes over-involved in one girl's case, and when Gita is denied asylum, Willie collaborates in her escape from the center. Not surprisingly, her services are no longer desired at the center and, to make matters worse, her boyfriend Macon, who also happens to be Gita's lawyer, is furious with her.

Meanwhile, Willie  is terribly concerned about her brother Luke's health (to the reader it is obvious that he has HIV/AIDS, but this is not revealed until midway through the book). She is also planning a trip to India, where she will research a poet about whom she is planning to write a book. She reconciles with Macon and he accompanies her on the trip, during which she suffers a miscarriage. When they return, Macon has become much sicker and within a short period of time dies.

A lot happens in this book, but the threads of the story aren't well integrated. The story of Willie's work with the immigrant girls could have been the foundation of an interesting novel, but once Gita runs away, that thread disappears until the very end of the book, replaced by Willie's trip to India and Luke's dying as the focus of the story. I found Macon and Willie's love story to be distracting and unbelievable, perhaps because Willie seems so unlovable. Everything that happens in the world is about her--Gita's story is not about Gita, it's about Willie; Luke's story is not about Luke, it's about Willie, and on and on. My distaste for the character was only strengthened by the fact that the audio book's narrator, Cassandra Campbell, gives her an annoying voice that becomes increasingly whiny as the book progresses. While the ending suggests Willie is having deep insights into how people continue in the face of great pain, I was unmoved.

I can't remember why I downloaded this book, and I wouldn't recommend anyone else do so.

Favorite passages:
. . . they can't stop guessing and talking about Stein's intentions, as if the author's intention was always everything,  and that a deeper subconscious muscle wasn't ever at work.

This is the thing about words: they fail, but you still have to use them.

She spends too much time in her head. There's more pain in there than a girl should have to live with.

[I did enjoy some of the author's language, but it did not balance out my issues with story construction and character.]

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