The bestselling author turns her hand to travel writing in an episodic, engaging evocation of Paris.
Johnson (L’Affaire, 2003, etc.) offers an intimate look at St.-Germain-des-Prés, the Parisian quartier she has lived in for years, but don’t come to this book expecting a sustained narrative. Instead, Johnson presents short mediations delightfully reminiscent of Colette. She begins at 8 Rue Bonaparte in her apartment overflowing with books and visitors. From there, the writer leads us on a colorful tour: up a staircase behind her guest room that leads to a spot where Jews were hidden during WWII; into the chapel near her apartment; through the famed art and architecture academy, École des Beaux-Arts; to the Bibliothèque Mazarine, where Johnson does much of her writing. Along the way, we inspect French fashion and taste French macaroons—“not those coconut-almond cookies we think of,” Johnson explains, “but a sort of pastel-colored oreo, two halves of pastry with a filling in between . . . pistachio, caramel, chocolate, fraises . . . or even chili, or oyster.” She takes us to the Paris of the past: we meet Queen Margot, Marguerite de Navarre (1553–1615), “in some ways the founder of the neighborhood,” and Dr. Guillotin, who in the cour de Commerce St.-André, “experimented on sheep to perfect his instrument.” The sections on 20th-century Parisian history include nods to existentialism, Edith Wharton, and a community of expat lesbians who congregated at Rue Jacob in the 1920s. In her evocation of and an ode to a different culture, Johnson waxes rhapsodic of the joys on walking, extolling the “village quality” of St.-Germain and the pleasure of running into friends and neighbors. Indeed, a subtle critique of contemporary America lurks at the edges of her portrait of Paris.
Nothing is as wonderful as a trip to la ville lumière, but this is a good second choice.