Overstuffed yarn of the ville lumière from city-hopping epic-smith Rutherfurd (New York, 2009, etc.).
Rutherfurd’s latest is billed as Paris: The Novel, a designation with which the shades of Émile Zola and Victor Hugo might take issue. A novel, maybe—or maybe five novels rolled up into one big saucisson—but not the novel, DeMille-an or Zanuck-ian as it may sound. For Rutherfurd, the novel form seems to be an opportunity to erect a kind of scaffolding around a sequence of flash cards devoted to, in this case, the history of Paris, and there’s scarcely a paragraph of exposition that is not didactic at heart. Henry Ford, he takes pains to tell us, is “the motor manufacturer” (not “a motor manufacturer”), just so we’re sure we’re not talking about Henry Ford the doughnut baron of Chillicothe. The Knights Templar, for anyone who hasn’t read kindred spirit Dan Brown (though Rutherfurd is far and away the better writer), “were the guardians of huge deposits in many lands. From there, it was only a step to being bankers.” He even explains French to the French: "Dieudonné....It means ‘the gift of God.’ " Merci pour les explications, dude. Rutherfurd layers on the symbolism with a trowel: Not for nothing does the garçon at the book’s beginning share a name with a certain musketeer. And much of the writing telegraphs, passively telling rather than showing: “the thought of base blood entering the noble family of de Cygne was repugnant to him.” All that said, Rutherfurd’s sense of epic sweep is admirable, and any book that stretches from Caesar to May 1968 is bound to need a lot of room.
For all its merits, Rutherfurd’s latest is too big and too professorial for comfort—Edmund White could have written his own À la recherche du temps perdu in the same space.