Edward Rutherford, a most satisfying novelist, writes historical fiction, tending toward epics. “Sarum” is Exhibit A. Other of his books, which can approach 1,000 pages and aren’t long enough, include “London,” “The Forest” and “New York: The Novel.” His most recent endeavor, “Paris,” is another wonderful tale of one of the world’s great cities.
The story begins in 1875, and loosely tracks six families to the present, with occasional forays back to the 13th through 18th centuries. These detours provide background along the way and complement rather than interrupt the more modern narratives. Only one of the six families, the De Cygnes, is noble; one of the others, the Jacobs family, is Jewish, and the others are lower to upper middle class in a city where class and background shape one’s future.
Thomas Gascon is perhaps the most admirable character, not just in his clan but in the entire novel. He comes from the slums near Montmartre, knows how to fight and knows to avoid fighting when he can. He is an ironworker who is lucky enough to get a job constructing one of the hands of the Statue of Liberty and later plays a more important role in the construction of the Eiffel Tower.
When one meets the LeSourd family, Jacques is a little boy being escorted to the cemetery by his mother. She tells him how his father, one of the stalwarts of the Paris Commune, was executed along with other communards by a member of the De Cygnes family. Young Jacques vows to avenge the killing. The scene hundreds of pages later in which he gets his best chance — at the front during World War I — is one of the book’s most memorable.
The Renards and Blanchards, each with their own unique characters, fill out the roster and help bring Paris to life from La Belle Epoche through the turn of the 20th century and two world wars to the present. Each generation has its own challenges and opportunities, and it’s fascinating to watch – for the reader has a great seat to this drama – the main characters and the interplay with some of the historical figures of the day. Those figures include writers, artists, designers, military leaders and politicians.
There are marriages that are frowned upon and daughters who are disowned because their unwed pregnancies could bring shame on their families. Honorable individuals do dishonorable things, and some of those who live outside the law perform heroic acts.
Particularly intriguing was life in Paris and in the DeCygnes estate in the Loire Valley under the Nazis. That four-year span, which must have seemed interminable to so many hungry, fearful Parisians, went by too quickly in the book.
Rutherford is a master at epics in part because he doesn’t omit the details in the sweep of the story. Through his characters, the reader walks the halls of Versailles in its heyday and feels the effects of the Edict of Nantes in 1598 and the terrible results of its revocation less than a century later. One becomes acquainted with Gustave Eiffel, converses with Hemingway, dresses for a rising star in the fashion industry named Coco Chanel and waits tables at the Moulin Rouge. And perhaps grandest of all, one walks the streets and boulevards of Paris, strolls through its great gardens and watches the city grow into its present form.
Meticulously researched, superbly written and filled with multi-dimensional characters, “Paris” is a terrific novel.
Walt Braun is editorial page editor of The Mercury.