Is there any redemption in the age of public banality? Can good writing emerge from social media self-disclosure? Turns out, the answer is yes, in the case of American scholar Mary Bly. She’s adapted her Facebook posts into a charming memoir, Paris in Love, a diary-like chronicle of her sabbatical year in France, enjoyed along with her family.
Bly, a gifted and unpretentious writer, knows how to flout expectations. Both a professor of Shakespeare at Fordham University and a daughter of famed poet Robert Bly, she’s already sidestepped literary snobbery by writing historical romances under a pen name, Eloisa James (employed again here). Now, by massaging the memoir out of its recent state as a trauma vehicle, she’s restored it to being another form that’s fun to read.
As a result, her “Paris in Love” is a joyful witness to procrastination abroad – she’s supposed to be doing research, after all; not Tweeting – and of domesticity shared with Italian husband Alessandro, teenaged son Luca, and 11-year-old daughter Anna, all whisked to the City of Light for a year of discovery. Pairing sensual observations with humor, the book offers pleasures ranging from Proustian meditations on sweets savored in their flat in the 9th arrondissement to where to park the obese family dog (in Italy, where he gets wedged between a wall and couch).
Bly’s growing girth is remarked on, too, and mainly as an expression of midlife enjoyment: “I lived in Paris once before, during a junior year abroad. Back then, I was working as a model, which meant that I ... salivated over lingerie stores displaying delicate pleated bras and extravagant silk panties. Now I zip past those stores, only to linger at chocolate shops displaying edible chess sets, or a model of Hogwarts in dark chocolate.”
This is food writing at its gladdest – and its least self-conscious. When Bly isn’t rhapsodizing over a scrumptious lunch she nabbed on the other side of the Chunnel (“sublime crusty black bream”), she’s wryly noting the failure of her kids to meet expectations at their Italian-language school. “Anna came home with a big grin and told me that [her nemesis] had ‘a time of stress’ at the blackboard in math class, as the teacher not only shouted, but pounded his fist on the desk. The truth is that I am failing to instill compassion in this child. I talked to her for five minutes about patience, kindness, and generosity, and then she laughed like a hyena and ran away.”
This isn’t a book about sophistication. Paris doesn’t transform the family into different people, less inclined to play the role of themselves. It simply accentuates their delights and dislikes – from forays to the boulangerie to coping with trilingual taunts at school. Because contentment is their native state, what’s vivid about their trip is that they’re a glad unit transported to a new realm.
Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all alike, but this one is different. Literacy, affection and Bly’s capacity to render the experience of breathing in foreign air make her prose nimble and disarming. Equally important: her family is endearing. Their foibles are real, but so is their attachment. Approached by two amorous strangers in one week, Alessandro swoons. “’Perhaps they think I’m French,’ he said, preening a little. ‘Perhaps they think you have a wallet,’ I said cruelly. His face fell, and I remembered that husbands have tender egos, even if they garner their compliments from unlikely places.”
What propels the family to Europe is Bly’s breast cancer. Caught early, it’s treated before the book’s start. But after her mastectomy, she wants to try 12 months on the Continent. On being diagnosed, “I immediately started anticipating the epiphany when I would be struck by the acute beauty of life,” she writes. But “[r]ather than living my own life in the moment, I wanted to live someone else’s life – specifically, that of a person who lived in Paris.”
Forced cheer in her Introduction is the book’s main flaw. It’s hard to invoke cancer without sounding maudlin, formulaic, or cloyingly brave, so when the subject’s broached, Bly doesn’t know which tone to try. But if her starting point is weak, what follows is impeccable proof that she’s mastered the memoir. “Paris in Love” is indisputably one of the best offerings from the genre in recent years.
Professors know that writing short is good for style, and Bly’s snippets – some of them pared down to no more than 420 characters – are as delicious as the most delicate of Parisienne bonbons. So even if you disdain IM, Twitter, and “Liking” posts online, forget the book’s origin in Facebook entries, and Friend it.
Susan Comninos is a frequent contributor to the Monitor. Her journalism is forthcoming in the Jewish Daily Forward. Her poetry is forthcoming in Subtropics, The Cortland Review and Literary Mama.