Patricia Engel’s collection of stories, Vida—a New York Times Notable Book and finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award—established its author as one of our country’s best young writers. Her first novel is a vibrant and wistful narrative about an American girl abroad in Paris, who navigates the intoxicating and treacherous complexities of independence, friendship, and romance.
Lita del Cielo, the daughter of two Colombian orphans who arrived in America with nothing and made a fortune with their Latin food empire, has been granted one year to pursue her studies in Paris before returning to work in the family business. She moves into a gently crumbling Left Bank mansion known as "The House of Stars,” where a spirited but bedridden Countess Séraphine rents out rooms to young women visiting Paris to work, study, and, unofficially, to find love.
Cautious and guarded, Lita keeps a cool distance from the other girls, who seem at once boldly adult and impulsively naïve, who both intimidate and fascinate her. Then Lita meets Cato, and the contours of her world shift. Charming, enigmatic, and weak with illness, Cato is the son of a notorious right-wing politician. As Cato and Lita retreat to their own world, they soon find it difficult to keep the outside world from closing in on theirs. Ultimately Lita must decide whether to stay in France with Cato or return home to fulfill her immigrant family’s dreams for her future.
It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris is a spellbinding love story, a portrait of a Paris caught between old world grandeur and the international greenblood elite, and an exploration of one woman’s journey to distinguish honesty from artifice and lay claim to her own life.
I picked up It's Not Love, It's Just Paris at BEA after the Literary Fiction talk, a talk where I ended up picking up every book mentioned. I probably wouldn't have grabbed it on cover and title alone but the publicist gave it a good blurb and the author had some great work under her belt so I felt I'd give it a try.
You can tell right off the bat that Engel has a great voice. She speaks very clearly and it has a sparseness that conversely draws you in. Little details and quotes are inserted in just the right places to draw a pleasant picture without drowning you in unnecessary words.
The plot itself is a tad cliche: girl goes to Paris to find herself. I did find Lita quite unique, however, if only for her backstory. She constantly reflects on the family she left back home and how she loves them so intensely but also feels the burden of that love. At the beginning she is very standoffish which I understand because I would be that way but is also not great for a narrator because it takes a good while for anything to happen. She eventually gets going, though.
The secondary characters aren't very standout. They all are super interesting but there are too many of them so none of them get any time to be fleshed out. A few less girls in the house could have led to deeper characters (and foils!) but to each his own.
Cato, the love interest, is a bit bland for a longer time than perhaps necessary but there is definitely a lot there. Once again, I would have liked to hear more about him and his past but Engel only gives us so much. C'est la vie, I suppose.
Ultimately, I suppose it's the very end of the book that got to me, the bit after Lita's time in Paris, the last few pages where you realize that this was all reminiscing years after the fact. Seeing where Lita's life had gone is not surprising but it's also strangely moving in how realistic it is against the fantasy that was her life in Paris. The phone call she receives, as well, I felt was incredibly touching and even though I didn't think I was super connected to the novel, my heart broke a tiny bit. It felt real.
Engel is a gorgeous writer and I would love to read more from her. If you want to find out who you are or just love Paris, this is the book for you.
It's Not Love, It's Just Paris comes out August 2013 from Grove Press.