That Paris Year by Joanna Biggar (Bethesda, Maryland : Alan Squire Publisher, 2010) is a novel that recounts the adventures of five southern California ‘Junior-Year-Abroad’ female college students (dare I say ‘co-eds’) in Paris during academic year 1962—1963 while attending the Sorbonne’s Studies in French Language and Culture (Cours de Civilization Française) designed for visiting foreign students.
In the Prologue, our narrator, J.J., is one of the group that includes fellow students Jocelyn, Melanie, Gracie, and Evelyn. In 1972, a decade later, as commencement speaker for her alma mater, J.J. attempts to describe to her audience the “virtues of going abroad” by reading from letters received from Jocelyn, her roommate at college and in Paris, and the others. Reasons given include adventure, improving language skills, searching for freedom, desire, love, and other such platitudes as J.J. opines. Gracie’s wit cuts to the chase: three words “for better or worse” capture her reason for travel abroad: liberty, equality, maternity. But it is Melanie’s trenchant observation that provides the undertone of adventure, romance, and a theme of the novel itself, which is a familiar quotation from Pascal: Le Coeur a les raisons que la raison ne connait point / the heart has its reasons which reason itself knows not. (Pp. 12, 314)
Following a night of revelry at a masquerade party in a posh neighborhood of Los Angeles, and the ensuing Santa Ana forest fires that destroyed several homes, our five members of the college’s Women of l’Ancienne Maison Française decided to go to Paris on the (imaginary) ship Jeanne d’Arc, debarking at Le Havre then by rail to the City of Light: “How disparate and how different our lives were to be one from the other was clear from the moment we set foot in the Gare Saint-Lazare. The beautiful webs of Paris, full of irony, contradiction, glorious seductions, and unforeseen despair, would soon enmesh us all, and were already being spun.” (p. 82).
And this web will include experiences of lodging in a crowded, dismal, cold apartment in the Latin Quarter, discovery of French food and wine and cafes and the disparate odors of neighborhoods while walking about the city, and learning the language and ways of the French. Or, at least, of Parisians. We are familiar with some of the Parisian iconic urban geography: the Boulevard St-Michel, St-Germain des Pres, the Boulevard Raspail, Café de Flore, Café des Deux Magots, Cluny. And farther afield, Montmartre and nearby Pigalle to the north, and the Luxemburg Gardens and Montparnasse to the south, the Place de la Concorde, Avenue des Champs Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, and the Tour Eiffel “on its monstrous, ghastly industrial legs, casting the huge shadow of an iron spider” westward. Immediately across the river Seine is the Louvre museum and on the Ile de la Cite, Notre Dame Cathedral. The ‘web’ is conveniently tied together by the Metropolitan (Metro) rail transit system.
The web includes as well the music of Edith Piaf blaring from café juke boxes and the new wave cinema of Godard and Truffaut. We can see actress Catherine Deneuve “going right down Saint-Germain [looking] like Sainte Genevieve [patron saint of Paris]. Twentieth century version.” (p. 300) The cinematic epic Lawrence of Arabia is popular as is shopping at the Galleries LaFayette store. We encounter epigrammatic truths of Arthur Rimbaud and Blaise Pascal and the existential ennui of Albert Camus and absurdity of Eugene Ionesco. And our students are surrounded by the political haze of the just-ended Franco-Algerian War and the just begun Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962) and its ramifications for France, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
The intertwined amorous and academic events of that year in Paris are comic and nostalgic. Such as Gracie’s encounter with roommate Camille, from the provinces, according to ‘Madame,’ who rents rooms to students, and Camille’s defense of the hamburger (‘amburg-air) as a delicacy when prepared at Le Drugstore on the Champs-Elysees. But not a true American dish as the turkey! Gracie then and there decides to cook Thanksgiving dinner and invite all her friends to chez Madame (p. 144). Or, Jocelyn’s encounter with existential Sorbonne professor of American Studies, Alain Saint-Georges, his hand on her thigh while both enjoy onion soup with cheese in the ‘worker’s’ cafe Au Ventre du Chochon (pig’s stomach) in Les Halles, the central market place of Paris (p. 169). Or, Melanie’s examination at the Sorbonne by sympathetic Monsieur le Professeur Lapierre and intimidating Madame le Professeur Grimbaud whose questions (what is the importance of the Massif Central, and what do the dates 800 and 1800 have in common?) require mountains of reading (p. 214). Later on, after Jocelyn and J.J. have left Paris for Marseille and the south of France, they receive in the mail their diplomas from the Sorbonne, elegantly printed documents that would “justify and proclaim all that seemed unreal and ready to recede into the uncertain terrain of memory.”(p. 305)
The grey (‘grisaille’—p. 270), cement skies of Paris give way to the full sun of Marseilles and the Cote d’Azur of Provence, Avignon, Nice, Arles, and even a jaunt to Venice. For our narrator, J.J., it is an opportunity to find connection with her grandmother, ‘Gran’ (for Grand’Mere) and “to understand why in some ways Gran’s world seems so much closer to me, even though I am still a stranger here, than my mother’s and her passion for junk and her West L.A. ways.” (p. 323) We recall Gran at the beginning of the story during the Santa Ana fires and now we learn more of her roots growing up in one of the hilltop villages of the Vaucluse in the shadow of Mount Ventoux and fields of lavender, the scent of which is especially noticeable during the fires whipped up by the Mistral wind.
Unlike their arrival at Le Havre aboard the Jeanne d’Arc, our adventuresome five’s departure is “scattered, separate, a quiet disappearing.” (p. 309) Yet, upon her return to Marseilles, J.J., after nearly a year’s travel in
Paris and elsewhere, realizes she has come “full circle into the lives of the others again, the demoiselles who had been so much a part of me that I hardly know where their lives ended and mine began. By the time I left Marseilles for the last time, we were inseparable.” (p. 447) And as in the beginning of our story with the reading of letters from her fellow students at the commencement ceremony, J.J. toward the end of that year in Paris shares with the reader letters from her old friends.
Our narrator in The Epilogue realizes that some of those young students may have missed classes due to J.J.’s recollections about travel abroad. J.J. ends the evening’s dinner with her mesmerized listeners with an admonition: Evelyn’s Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not turn into thy mother. (p. 459) while at the same time saying to them that it is okay to turn into one’s grandmother (we think of ‘Gran) and leaves it at that without further comment. Our story ends in southern California where it began with Evelyn’s wedding, “Thursday, the twenty-first of November nineteen hundred and sixty three. . .” the day before the assassination of President Kennedy, and the world would never again be quite the same.
That Paris Year is, for this reviewer, a souvenir of a golden
age, of cherished memories. While J.J. and her ‘vielles copines’ were struggling with the Sorbonne’s Cours de Civilization Française and the agony of romantic attractions, I was a Freshman at the American College in Paris in the 1962—1963 inaugural class of a hundred American students who, a few months earlier, had just graduated from mostly US military high schools in Germany and France. I came to the ACP from Orleans American High School along with two other OHS graduates. The College (now the American University of Paris) was housed in the American Church, 65 Quai d’Orsay, VIIe, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and some classes were taken in the American Cathedral, Avenue George V, VIIIe, a ten-minute walk over Pont d’Alma from the Church. The College’s library was on the Champs Elysees not far from Le Drugstore and I resided as a demi-pensionnaire with a French family in the Rue Marbeuf off the Champs Elysees, a stone’s throw from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Metro Station.
I may have sat next to Jocelyn in the Theatre Ionesco watching the Bald Soprano, or across from Melanie in the basement of Le Chat Qui Peche listening to the Jackie McLean Quartet. In a station of the Metro, I saw apparitions of Gracie and Evelyn, faces in the crowd, petals on a wet, black bough, to share Ezra Pound’s fascination with such images. And as for J.J., I am sure she often accompanied me on our walks about the city in that Paris year.