The ex-pat cafe crowd considers the life worth living in Paris.
In modern Paris, as always, a coterie of privileged, successful, attractive, dissatisfied 20–30somethings contemplate their self-worth over coffee and wine in the city of love’s countless clean, well-lighted places. Paris, in all its chaos and charm, may very well be the navel-gazing capital of the world, and so it serves appropriately as the lively setting for Simpson’s (Six Packs in South Dakota, 2011, etc.) new portrait of malcontents. School teacher Peregrine moved to Paris from America in hopes of distancing himself from his overbearing family while also searching for a deeper meaning in life. But he can’t escape—his family shows up at his doorstep unannounced, and thoughts of death consume him. Most intriguingly, Peregrine’s melancholy is colored by his toxic relationship, as a gay man, to Emma—the buxom, man-eating alpha-female who beguiles all men and women, gay and straight. A colorful cast of personalities populates the novel, each with his or her existential issues, especially Peregrine’s artful mother and his father, Arthur Woodmancy, an author famous for horror novels. Arthur takes pride in their “family fondness for literary references,” a fondness Simpson shares—he namedrops Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Austen, Hardy and many others. Simpson showcases his writing talent in the novel’s many somber, reflective passages, while maintaining a keen sense of detail and place. But attempts to make despair seem fashionable result in a vexing layer of superficial smarminess, exemplified by overcooked repartee. Even the horrific, jarring death at the novel’s center comes across as contrived, weighed down by heavy-handed metaphors. Yet the “cloud-[trek] across and through the murky pandemonium of [Peregrine’s] life” can be a captivating read, albeit as exhausting as expected when audience to a self-absorbed depressive obsessing over his life as a setting sun, unsure if it also rises.
A notable effort in need of firmer footing to reach the depths it probes.