I’ve been looking forward to reading Paris Mon Amour for months because I knew it was set in Paris, and because Isabel Costello and I both did language degrees and share a love of language. I had a feeling her debut novel would be something special and it really is. When a novel opens with, ‘The first time I caused terrible harm to those I love was an accident. The second is the reason I’m here’, it has my attention. The mysteries which these statements set up permeate the narrative as Alexandra recounts what has happened in the distant and recent past. As the plot progresses, the sense of impending disaster builds and you know it isn’t going to end well. However, while there are deaths in this book, and violence and crimes of a kind, Paris Mon Amour isn’t crime fiction.
When Alexandra learns her husband, Philippe, is having an affair she is plunged into a bewildering mental landscape. It fascinated me that it’s her mother who tells her, as this makes the revelation all the more confusing for Alexandra. I couldn’t help wondering what the mother’s motivation was for passing this information on, particularly in view of the way she does it. What did she expect her daughter to do with this bombshell?
Told in the first person, from Alexandra’s viewpoint, the reader is privy to her reactions and actions. Alexandra is frank about being drawn to Jean-Luc, who is much younger than her, and is the son of friends. She shares her reflections in a way which shows enormous courage and insight, and I found these aspects extremely interesting. It’s a sophisticated book and I am so pleased Canelo gave it a serious (and gorgeous) cover. Costello handles the sexual scenes extremely well. She portrays the sex graphically and honestly, but it never feels pornographic or voyeuristic. It shows us what Alexandra is thinking and feeling, and is integral to the plot.
It’s clear from the outset that Alexandra’s relationship with her mother is fraught with a number of complex emotions, and I found this element fascinating. Both women have been affected by the tragic death of Alexandra’s brother, Christopher. From their reactions and interactions, the reader gets glimpses of how this tragedy was handled and what dynamics it set in motion for mother and daughter. From the narrative, it’s clear that these dynamics have framed their entire relationship, Alexandra’s upbringing and psychological development. As someone who’s fascinated by mother-daughter relationships, it prompted immense sympathy and empathy in me towards Alexandra. I wasn’t sure whether the affair with Jean-Luc was supposed to come across as an all-consuming passion. I felt that the knowledge of her husband’s affair unleashed repressed grief around her brother’s death, and also anger about the way the tragedy was dealt with by her mum. Jean-Luc, we learn, also has issues from the past, so their mutual attraction is understandable, if ill-fated.
In a publishing market where literary and genre fiction are seen very differently, it’s interesting to consider where Paris Mon Amour fits. Women’s fiction, chick lit and domestic noir have specific tropes and rules. Thematically, and in many ways, it reminded me of many of the things I loved about Hausfrau. I wouldn’t describe Paris Mon Amour as chick lit, and while it has an element of the ‘women behaving badly’ which we’ve seen in recent domestic noir, the tone and feel of the novel are different. Whatever genre it fits doesn’t really matter. The point is it’s an emotional read, and a highly compelling story.
With thanks to the author for a review copy.
You may also be interested in the character interview I carried out recently with Alexandra Folgate, protagonist of Paris Mon Amour. It is here.
Vicky Newham © 2016.