It's Not Love, It's Just Paris/Patricia Engel: Reflections

Monday, June 10, 2013

Anyone who had the privilege of reading Patricia Engel's collection of stories, Vida, knew for sure: a new true writer had emerged, and attention was to be paid. Oh, the sentences, I kept murmuring, as I read. Oh, the heartbreaking sentences. (My thoughts on Vida are here.)

At the BEA two weeks ago, I came home with just three books—Someone by Alice McDermott (the immaculate surprise of that book shared here), Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, and It's Not Love, It's Just Paris by Patricia Engel. Who could need more?

Engel's first novel is the story of an American girl (though indeed, for this is an Engel tale, and Engel is deeply entrenched in many languages and multiple cultures, the heroine is a Colombian American girl) in Paris. Lita del Cielo lives in the "House of Stars" under the care of an aging countess and in the company of other young women with international blood and sure ideas about love. She is a faithful daughter, a skipped-two-grades academic, a girl who wears her one good dress to a safe length below her knees. She is the sort of person who can judge the quality of a friendship by the silence it can withstand, and while the girls in the house go about their notching affairs, Lita waits, ghostwrites term papers for a sustaining fee, helps a young waiter perfect his English. Mostly she watches, and she listens, tries to make sense of the lessons brought to the worn down, still-haughty home of the stars.

Here, for example, Lita is having a conversation with a housemate with whom "you weren't required to respond in order for her to have a full conversation."
"But you see, men are born guilty Women are built to forgive and love and forgive all over again. Men are built for war and because we live in mostly peaceful times, they just turn on themselves. My point is you have to learn to get through life without being sentimental about boys because they are never worth the trouble."
But of course Lita does find a boy—imperfect and mysterious, capable of silence, slow to assume and long to love. He is the son of a notorious politician. His mother is dead and he is ill. He lives by himself near the sea, finds city noise and dust endangering. Lita has only come to Paris for a year. She has come certain that she will return to the family who needs her, but Paris changes everyone and Paris changes Lita.

This is a book filled with incomparable sentences, a book so international in its aura, so mysterious in its trajectory, so veiled and so specific at once. Yearning is a universal language. Paris just after Princess Diana's death, in a house of many languages, through the eyes of an unchastened soul, is resolutely particular. I read in awe of Engel's ability to bridge so seamlessly between the two—to burrow so deeply into the story itself and to transcend with great swaths of sudden truth.

My galley is wildly dog-earred. Here, below, one of many additional passages that I loved:
And then I understood that between us there was a common spore of isolation that grew in my overpopulated home and within his quiet cottage. We were young but we'd both grown well into our loneliness. We were the kind of lonely that wasn't ashamed to be so. A lonely without self-penitence.
It's Not Love, It's Just Paris is set to launch on the same day—August 6th—as Handling the Truth, a book birthday we also share with Cool Gray City of Love by Gary Kamiya, whose San Francisco I've observed from the balcony of his home in the hills.

I'm thinking cake. In the meantime, huge congratulations to Patricia Engel, for doing it, again.


Adrienne said...

I was living in Paris then. Looks like this is a must read!

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