C.S. Richardson's The Emperor of Paris is a slender novel, one that could easily be read in just a very few sittings, but I am glad I took my time with it. There is a magical quality to it that put me in mind of Joanne Harris's Chocolat and the movie Amelie as I was reading. It's filled with a cast of quirky characters and what it lacks in heft it makes up in heart. Richardson takes his time getting to where he's going and he makes things interesting in the route he takes to get there. It wasn't until I arrived at those last pages that I decided that this is indeed as beautiful a read as the elegant wraps the book comes in.
Paris. The eighth arrondissement. That's where so much of the eye catching beauty so familiar to people like me just looking in from the outside and dreaming of the City is found. The Champs-Élysées, the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomph. Even if you have never been there you can see these monuments in your mind. It's also where the celebrated baker, Émile Notre-Dame has his bakery, known affectionately as the Cake-Slice. He is the thinnest baker in all of Paris, but don't go by appearances when it comes to his bread. Baguettes, brioches, croissants, wheat rolls with sweet hidden raisins. All mouth-watering.
Books, bread, pictures. Bookstalls, bakeries, and the Louvre. These are the places the characters of the story inhabit. Émile and his unlikely, rather taciturn wife (rather more plush than her husband, so, what a pair they are) have one son, Octavio. Born in the basement of the bakery, he grows up 'word-blind' unable to learn how to read, but he devours the stories his father tells him. In the opening pages he's out with his books, which he collects according to color starting with red, when what seems to be snow in July rains down from the upper storeys of the Cake-Slice. The story begins with a fire, but will end with two misfittish people coming together, giving hope that there really is someone for everyone.
The story begins and ends with Octavio but in between the streets of Paris populate, the scenes play out and time moves forward and backwards. Along with the Cake-Slice is the Atelier Normande, a couture house all about appearances. It's ironic then that the Pascal and his wife Céleste have a daughter, Isabeau, whose face has been disfigured in an accident. Forever hiding the scar with locks of her hair or a scarf, she retreats to the Louvre's underworld where she restores paintings. Book in hand she sits outside away from everyone lost in stories eating her lunch.
Henri Fournier is a third generation bookseller. Though his father and grandfather are still involved in the business he is usually left manning the stall alone. He steps onto a magical book, right foot-recto, left foot-verso in the hopes of feeling the story within like the Fourniers before him. The book sits on the shelves but is not for sale. When Jacob, a starving young artist, leaves a drawing of a young woman on consignment, it sets in motion the meeting of our two lovers.
"She--was a reader."
"He had a library."
So many people make up this story. War comes, men leave and sometimes come back. Marriages, children, deaths happen. The eighth arrondissement is privy to all the drama of it all. This is the story of a meeting, of two lost souls and how they find love. There is a quiet simplicity to the telling, and the telling is economically done. I was afraid it was all a little too thin, but I just had to wait for the dough to rise and ended up with a perfect loaf.
The Emperor of Paris was longlisted for Canada's Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2012. It's so pretty in the presentation (and fitting the story so very nicely), I had to share a few more photos. You can't tell from this vantage point, but the feather on the dust jacket is slightly raised for a nice texture. This was a lovely read, both tactiley--book in hand and visually through the words of the story.
C.S. Richardson's first book, The End of the Alphabet won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for the Best First Book. I'm completely perplexed as to why his books have not been published in the US. Used copies, however, can be had fairly cheaply. I had tentatively grabbed Nancy Richler's The Imposter Bride as my next Canadian read, but now I am considering letting The End of the Alphabet cut in line. I was in dire need of kick starting my Canadian Reading and this was just the ticket.