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by Paul LaFarge

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-374-16833-4
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This lavishly imagined and highly entertaining historical novel, inspired by the life and work of Parisian architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809–91), is a distinct improvement over LaFarge’s somewhat cluttered debut, The Artist of the Missing (1999).

Both an opening “Note to the English Edition” and a summary “Afterword” identify this as an English translation of a 1922 tale by one (presumably fictional) Paul Poissel. The story they enclose weaves its way circuitously toward a focus on Haussmann, beginning with an extended account of the early life of a foundling named Madeleine, rescued from the Seine to which her (widowed) biological father had consigned her, raised in a convent where she nourishes her delusions of noble birth, then “adopted” by De Fonce, a cunning “demolition man” who becomes both her lover and her introduction to the glittering social world of which the much-admired (and married) baron Haussmann is a prominent member. LaFarge’s occasionally wheezy plot, which ranges over nearly half a century and pauses for numerous digressive episodes, matters rather less than do his informed and densely detailed pictures of the city and its environs which the brilliant planner (whose creative energies realize many of the Second Empire’s utopian dreams) reshapes from its medieval origins. And the visionary bureaucrat indulges all the while his passions for the similar perfection of ardent, willing women—notably Madeleine, who becomes his mistress, bears his child, and accomplishes her revenge for Haussmann’s benign neglect of her in a series of skillfully staged climactic scenes within the reconstructed city, at a lavish costume ball (where Madeleine, costumed as Marie Antoinette, meets “author” Paul Poissel), and at the imperial country retreat at Compiègne. The tensions among duty, artifice, and passion are thus vividly played out in a superbly realized period setting.

There’s a hint of Isak Dinesen in LaFarge’s lush romantic images of sheltered lives seething with unacknowledged desires and complexities. An unusual, and unusually compelling, novel.