Paris Mon Amour — A Review

Rarely can a novel have been so appropriately titled as Isabel Costello’s Paris Mon Amour. The city is so evocatively described it becomes one of the characters (Paris: Mon Amour, perhaps?). Also, the novel explores the contrasting romantic mores of two French men (Paris. Mon Amour, maybe?)

Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello
Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello

I’ve blogged before about the pleasure of seeing friends’ novels being transformed from Word documents  e-mailed around as drafts to professionally published finished article. When Isabel announced that she’d got a publishing deal, I wrote a post about Paris Mon Amour as being one of these deserved successes. Now I’d like to pass on a few thoughts about the novel in a belated review. 

First of all, it’s a compelling read. One problem with reviewing the novel is avoiding spoilers and, while the premise of the Paris Mon Amour is well advertised to anyone looking at the blurb, the way the events unfolded towards the end of the novel certainly took me by surprise (in a good way).

As well as an enthralling plot, I loved  the quality of the writing. One benefit of being something of a writing workshop veteran (through many course and writing groups) is that I appreciate excellent prose: I was constantly impressed by this novel’s standard.

Isabel’s prose in this novel isn’t the sort that draws attention to itself in a showy way but it possesses a definite elegance — avoiding the repetitions and banalities that subconsciously drag down more workaday novels. It also reflects the restrained but classy character of Paris as a city. There were certain turns of phrase — like “it flipped the catch on my imagination” that I found refreshingly inventive.

As might be inferred from the title, one of the book’s strengths is its depiction of Paris as a city. Alexandra, the half-British,  American-raised ex-pat narrator, is a perfect guide to Paris for the non-native. This is a master stroke. Alexandra is as knowledgeable as a Parisian about the city’s geography but she still has the eyes of the outsider, which allows her to provide illuminating descriptions to the reader who’s not quite so familiar.

The novel captures an elusiveness about Paris. I’ve visited the city on numerous occasions but I feel it’s much more inscrutable than most cities. I’m less able to mentally picture how to get from A to B than in many places I’ve visited far less frequently, for example Berlin or San Francisco.

Perhaps it’s those numbered arrondissements — they seem like a code that only seems to yield its secrets to those who’ve lived in the city. With Alexandra, at least from the geographical perspective, the reader feels in safe hands.

Paris could be the only setting for this story as, like the city itself, the plot lies at the intersection of sensuousness and culture.

Paris Mon Amour tells the story of an intense, passionate affair through both the heart (and other more erogenous parts of the body) and the head. Isabel has a degree in modern languages and while, through Alexandra, she wears her erudition lightly, the characters use, for example, the poetry of Baudelaire to articulate their feelings.

Paris is the city of love and French is the de facto language of love. The sprinkling of French language dialogue in the novel (translated where necessary) works well to set the place. Also, as a novel written in English, the French works well to evoke the heightened sexuality th both the principal characters feel once they’ve embarked on their illicit affair.

For those of us lacking fluent French, the odd phrase hints at the exotic and unknown world that Alexandra is entering.

Isabel wrote a much-commented-on post on The Literary Sofa about Sex Scenes in Fiction. It was so thought-provoking I wrote my own my response to it. The careful thinking she put into that post is evident in Isabel’s expert handling of the sexual relationships between the characters in Paris Mon Amour.

What makes the novel feel so authentic is that much of the protagonists’ motivation stems from their mutual unadulterated sexual attraction (or perhaps that should read very adulterated?) .

As in real life, characters in the novel make reckless decisions, often knowingly, because they’re unable to physically resist the object of their desires. To acknowledge that people are subject to such pure, undiluted desire is genuine and realistic. It’s a refreshing change from novels that might try to rationalise attraction by over-compensating with a character’s likeable, non-sexual attributes.

Conversely, a couple can be matched perfectly in social and intellectual terms, but if they’re not getting along physically then all other types of compatibility are in jeopardy.

Sexual motivation is just as important (if not more) than any other driver of a character’s behaviour. The tricky thing is that it’s intrinsically far more difficult for a writer to convey sexual attraction than more rational motivations

Isabel achieves this goal through some impressively economical writing.

(I’m not an enthusiast about borrowing the visual term ‘sex scene’ to describe fiction but there’s not a concise equivalent term that I’m aware of in writing so I’ll bear with it.)

There must be at least a dozen ‘sex scenes’ told from Alexandra’s point of view, both with passionate Jean-Luc and her less pulse-racing husband Philippe. The novel is frank in depicting intimate physical details that would never be seen on post-watershed British TV or in mainstream films. Only a few art-house films, quite often French ones, don’t shy away from depicting the messiness of sex. Thankfully one of the strengths of the written word is its ability to use its direct connection with the mind of the reader to describe and explore personal experiences that get little exposure in other genres.

As an aside, it’s baffling why the mention of even perfectly straightforward sex remains a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon taboo. The reasons why so many people are buttoned up about one of life’s most universal experiences people is a topic for a blog post (or entire blog) of their own.

While Paris Mon Amour is candid, the effect is almost always achieved using one carefully chosen phrase or sentence. I’d guess that the sexually explicit content of the novel would come to no more than a couple of pages, if all cut and pasted into one place.

Erotica this isn’t but the writing is genuinely erotic, through its sparing use of tantalising details — a case of less is more – and every detail advances the plot and revelation of character. Nothing is gratuitous.

While the narration means that sex is described from Alexandra’s first person perspective, I found it engaged me from the perspective of a male reader (particularly as I’ve written similar content myself). Through Alexandra’s narration, Isabel’s writing strikes empathy with her male characters. As I mentioned in this post , in any healthy relationship, it seems vital to try to appreciate the physical enjoyment of one’s partner but there’s also an elusive impossibility about being able to authentically experience what the other feels.

While Alexandra’s physical appearance isn’t described in exhaustive detail, one key question at the heart of the novel is whether Jean-Luc, a good-looking, twenty-three year-old man, who seems to have no problem seducing women of his own age (and younger) would find Alexandra irresistibly attractive. This ties in with a theme in the novel that will inevitable resonate more strongly with women readers – female fertility.

At the opening of the novel, we learn that Alexandra is self-consciously aware that she’s entering her forties — that threshold where she worries that the underlying source of her attractiveness to men (the outward signs of fertility) might be waning. By contrast, her considerably older husband, while not sexually attractive, is still presumably potent in reproductive terms.

I can’t speak for Jean-Luc but I have no problem in finding women over forty to be very attractive and, if I try to cast my mind back to my own early twenties, I think that’s always been the case. There are far more important factors at play than age when it comes to sexual attraction.

The novel has a very stylish cover photograph of a vase of shattered lilies (see above). It complements the classy prose and elegant setting but also, as book covers tend to do, it serves to position the novel in a certain genre. I guess this would be upmarket women’s fiction, although my own enjoyment of the novel suggests it’s capable of appealing well beyond an exclusively female audience. I’d suggest Paris Mon Amour also sits firmly in the ‘book club’ category. 

One reason for this is the novel’s subtlety. Plot details that later take on large significance are slipped into the narrative almost (but not quite) without the reader noticing — a skillful technique that repays a second reading. I had that satisfying feeling that I was stealthily picking up subtly buried clues about possible duplicitous behaviour of one of the protagonists and my suspicions were confirmed towards the end of the novel. To say any more would be to give away spoilers.

Finally, it’s ironic that the novel was published in the same month as the EU referendum when certain parties attempted to incite divisions and to assert willfully misleading falsehoods about our European partners .While Paris Mon Amour shines a fascinating light on differences between cultures, it’s a welcome reminder of how a shared appreciation of the love, passion and humanity ought to unite us all.

Paris Mon Amour is published as an ebook by Canelo and is available from all the usual platforms.

Fish, Chips and A Pint of Ale

I caught the start of one of those property ogling TV programmes yesterday. A pair of high-flying lawyers wanted to move out of their flat overlooking St. Paul’s to live a life of bucolic bliss in the New Forest. While the female of the couple wanted a huge kitchen and reception rooms to entertain friends in (i.e. show off their house), the male partner wistfully imagined a life where he’d grow a few vegetables in the garden, stroll down to the village shop on a Saturday morning for a paper and occasionally visit the village pub for a Sunday lunch.

It was all perfectly achievable for their property budget of £1.5m. It’s ironic that the local businesses that they imagine happily serving them with their Telegraph and roast beef probably need a lot more custom than the occasional weekend visit to continue their effect on buttressing property prices. Properties in villages with shops and pubs will have a significantly higher value than those in dead, commuter dormitories — but the people who can afford those prices often work during the week elsewhere.

Nevertheless, this is another demonstration of the way the local pub is so ingrained into the country’s collective consciousness. Even people who barely venture inside a pub (and the busiest pubs are the likes of cavernous Wetherspoons these days) cherish the idea of the welcoming, thatched local on the village green with its lovable eccentrics at the bar.

In fact, as David Cameron recently proved, the idyll of the English pub and its pint of foaming brown ale extends well beyond these shores. It’s often reported that foreign tourists put the experience of visiting a pub near the top of their to-do lists when visiting this country. And one of the most high profile overseas visitors of them all got his wish last month visiting a pub just up the road from me.

As was widely reported, Chinese President Xi was taken on a brief visit by our Prime Minister to the Plough in Cadsden.

Cadsden -- Haunt of Chinese Presidents and Forgotten Prime-Ministerial Children
The Plough At Cadsden — Haunt of Chinese Presidents and Forgotten Prime-Ministerial Children

The Plough gained some notoriety a few years ago as the pub where David Cameron left his daughter behind in the toilets after a lunchtime visit from his nearby country house retreat, Chequers.

This autumn the Plough can justifiably lay claim to the title of most famous pub in the world given the brief visit’s huge coverage in the Chinese media — and also in many other countries.

It seems the Chinese leader had been determined to sample what must be known in China as two of Britain’s great traditions — fish and chips and a drink in a pub. Of course the traditional way of eating fish and chips is out of newspaper with the grease soaking into your palms so perhaps it was diplomatic to combine the two in the pub visit. However, it’s certainly not a British tradition to eat a tiny portion out of a wire basket at the bar.

Nevertheless, the starter-sized portion of President Xi’s fish and chips has now gone on the menu permanently in the Plough. In the weeks after his visit, coach parties of Chinese visitors pitched up at the pub to sample this rather non-traditional method of serving the national speciality.

Equally significantly, the visit has led to British real ale becoming a much sought after drink in China, with demand for Greene King IPA after the Chinese leader drank a pint in the pub. (A regular beer at the pub is local brewery Rebellion’s IPA — perhaps David Cameron steered clear of that particular brew given his company?)

Inspector Barnaby's Favourite Haunt -- The Lions of Bledlow
Inspector Barnaby’s Favourite Haunt — The Lions of Bledlow

Like many other pubs in the Chilterns, the Plough has featured as a picture-postcard hostelry in many different television programmes, notably Midsomer Murders. In fact, what’s probably Inspector Barnaby’s most frequently visited pub, The Lions of Bledlow, is only a few mies down the road, also nestling against the foothills of the Chilterns.

Midsomer Murders is an exceptionally popular programme internationally, particularly in Scandinavia, and is another example of how the rest of the world is fascinated by the British pub.

And it’s not surprising why anyone with even a passing interest in the culture of this country should be interested in experiencing life in the pub. Other countries have their wonderful cafes, restaurants, bars and other meeting places but with the possible exception of Ireland, where pubs still seem to provide a subtly different function, it’s difficult to think of an institution quite as casually inclusive, socially democratic and (usually) community focused as the pub.

It’s not even a pre-requisite to drink alcohol — I’ve gone into Wetherspoons during the day and had a cup of coffee and, at the other end of the scale, the likes of Tom Kerridge (whose pubs in Marlow are not that far away from The Plough and Lions of Bledlow above) have made pub food a Michelin starred but (by most accounts) without throwing out the pub experience completely.

It’s little wonder that the pub is a central feature in many dramas — the Bull in Ambridge, the Rover’s Return, the Queen Vic are central to their respective soaps — but there’s many other examples of pubs of all varieties in sit-coms and other dramas  in — the Nag’s Head in Only Fools and Horses and the period seventies The Railway Arms in Life on Mars come to mind — both as far away from the bucolic Lions of Bledlow as it’s possible to imagine.

There’s an equally long tradition of pubs in literature — stretching back to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — although many pubs are better known for authors’ real-life drinking than their fictional representations. Possibly the most famous modern fictional pub is the Moon Under Water — George Orwell’s description in an article for the Evening Standard of the elusive ideal pub.

In novel writing terms, a pub offers countless opportunities for characters to meet, information to be passed on and conflict to arise. It can also introduce the community in which the protagonists exist — and also make a large contribution to establishing the culture and ethos of that fictional world.

And anyone who’s spent some time around the pubs of London and other large British cities — or has opened a weekend newspaper food and drink or travel supplement — can’t fail to have noticed the new-found fashionability of ‘craft beer’ and the trendy pubs that serve (and often brew) it.

Sweet Potato and Goats Cheese Pizza at Crate Brewery
Sweet Potato and Goats Cheese Pizza at Crate Brewery, Hackney Wick

The craft beer phenomenon has been building for a few years but craft or artisanal beer has become so popular that Time Out devoted most of a recent issue to London’s breweries — which are often located in hipster hotspots like Hackney Wick, Cambridge Heath or Bethnal Green (see photos of the Crate Brewery on the canal in Hackney Wick).

With the likes of Brewdog opening bars across London and elsewhere (I visited the new one in Soho last week), pubs are no longer best known for their links to tradition and the past but for being as much part of the cultural Zeitgeist as street art and thickets of facial hair.

Enjoy the Street (or is it Canal?) Art With Your Pint
Enjoy the Street (or is it Canal?) Art With Your Pint

And as plenty of the new breweries and pubs are producing excellent beer then this popularity is likely to continue. However, I can’t say my ‘unfiltered’ pint from the Crate Brewery pictured below is one of the best examples I’ve drunk recently.

I Don't Fancy Yours Much: a Pint of Crate Brewery's Unfiltered Craft Beer.
I Don’t Fancy Yours Much: a Pint of Crate Brewery’s Unfiltered Craft Beer.

When I started writing The Angel it may have seemed odd that Kim, an uber-hip street artist (and uber is a word that’s recently taken on a new meaning) would be an expert in beer, working in a pub and having an intimate knowledge of how beer is brewed.  Now it’s clear Kim’ was ahead of the trend, being into beer and brewing before the typical Shoreditch hipster — not that she’d care about being the height of uber-cool.


I wrote the following in the middle of one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world – looking out into the sea as our ferry weaves between the courses of various huge container ships and tankers. (I’d actually typing into a Word document to post later on but I could have blogged fromt here if I’d been prepared to pay £4 for an hour’s wi-fi – bit steep I thought).

It’s nearly a 9 hour journey from St. Malo to Portsmouth – and would be quite pleasant if it wasn’t one of the busiest days of the year (a Saturday in August) which means all the reclining chairs and seats in the cafe have been marked by the massed middle-class British on holiday with the same sort of territorial ferocity that I learnt at Trégomeur Zoo Park that tigers display when they urinate to mark their patch. I’m typing from up on the sun deck.

I was a very frequent visitor to Europe until the end of the last year, flying on average on a fortnightly basis – mainly Germany but also plenty of trips to Sweden, Spain, France, Portugal, Belgium, Portugal and even Croatia. These trips have tended to be for two or three days and to cities and hotels where English is pretty much the universal language.

I’ve spent longer in Europe on holiday but, most recently, these trips have been to Gozo (off Malta) where English is an official language and to the Algarve, where, like the Costa del Sol,  it may as well be. I’d probably need to go back over ten years to previous long holidays in France to experience anything like the ‘foreignness’ of the past week.

Foreignness is a relative term somewhere like Brittany. It’s stating the obvious to say it’s very easy, even with a barely scraped GCE in French, to drive, shop (especially in their vast hypermarkets), have a meal and do touristy things. Not only is there a lot of standardisation of laws and regulations (traffic, for example) through EU membership but also because all Western European countries are subject to the same sort of globalisation as we suffer in the UK – though perhaps not as extreme – not just the French love of McDonald’s but all the consumerist brand goods that are now imported from China.

Much popular culture is converging too. I spent most of a Thursday night watching the French version of ‘Masterchef’ on TF1 – a bit more of an X-Factor style audition with three celebrity judges, including an odd Johnny Depp lookalike, than our shouty version with an artificial bit of suspense over who’s the last one through. Very useful research though for me as I want to construct a fictional cookery programme in ‘The Angel’  in which James was a contestant.

It seems that many of the fundamentals of life in the EU are homogenising – and perhaps this is a theme that I have in the novel — evidently by having a European leading character but maybe exploring this cultural assimilation more subtly by having Kim first move to cosmopolitan, multi-cultural London as a staging post, then breaking through into areas of life that are considered sacredly British (or even English) – like the pub.

It’s probably the social customs and decisions made on a local level (and perhaps influenced by – relative – unchangeable like the climate) such as architecture that mark the countries out as culturally different – even eating habits are converging – I saw ready meals and pre-prepared salads in the Super U and Carrefours.

And, of course,  language is still the most striking and difficult cultural factor that makes cultures different. It’s not too difficult to visit for a week and order a meal – but a far tougher prospect to get to a level where one can communicate on a serious level. I know the length of time it’s taken for a friend of mine who’s bought a place in Spain to achieve ‘A’ level Spanish.

I’m thinking of having Kim get quite frustrated when she realises she has the vocabulary to deal with metropolitan life but she’ll realise in the countryside that she’s back at schoolchild level English in certain fields — although maybe many of the natives won’t know how to describe certain things either.

Le Mont St. Michel

The second reason why the blog has been quiet is that I’ve been in France – nearly nine days without any internet access whatsoever, which must be my longest non-on-line period for several years.

We stayed in a gîte on a pig farm, of all places, in the Côtes d’Armor on the north coast of Brittany, fairly near to St. Brieuc. It was a lovely location – the accommodation was quite modern but the farm was a slightly ramshackle collection of buildings and an almost stereotypical evocation of the rustic French rural idyll – vegetables growing in the garden, ducks and geese by a pond, a goat by the farm entrance – and I saw a farmer relieving himself against a courtyard wall on Sunday in full view of our front door.

Not really very near St.Brieuc – about 150 kilometres away and actually in Normandy – is Mont St.Michel. I went there probably over 25 years ago and all I can remember is crowds and an abbey on the top – the sort of sight that I’ve since thought is probably better seen from about five miles away and anything nearer tends to destroy the experience.

From a distance it’s probably the closest actual modern structure to look anything like the mythical structures of romantic Arthurian legend – the Isle of Avalon. Perhaps this stuck in my mind as I’ve written a reference to Avalon rising out of the waters in an early chapter of ‘The Angel’.

On returning after such a long time I had another serendipitous experience. We struggled up the steps to the abbey on the top of the mount just as the ticket office shut at 6pm. If we wanted to see the abbey then we had to come back later as there was a special evening opening starting at 7pm. I couldn’t see why they didn’t keep the abbey open for the duration.

So to kill time we went back down to the base of the mount which, for anyone who doesn’t know the place, is about half a mile of one narrow street lined with hotels, restaurants, crêperies, gift shops and anything else designed to part tourists from all over the world from their money (the place was full of Americans and Japanese as well as the normal British, Belgians, Germans and Dutch that tend to visit other places in Normandy and Brittany.)

Standing among these palaces of tat built into largely medieval stone buildings I was perversely reminded of visiting Disneyland (the mount itself looks very like Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle from a distance) and theme parks — particularly Legoland’s castle with the dragon rollercoaster.

After buying extortionately priced ice-creams and looking at souvenir rubbish like snowstorms – I actually saw boxes of the stuff being delivered to shops with ‘Made in China’ in big letters on the side – I was ready for a similar rip-off experience at the abbey.

But I needn’t have worried. Just ahead of us walking into the abbey was a jerky Scandinavian on his own who was photographic everything. As soon as he entered the first big room and then ran out again to grab a photo through the narrow door, which framed a woman playing a harpsichord.

I’d read something in the Rough Guide about the evening openings having music and ‘installations’ but I didn’t realise it was such an elegantly organised event that made superb use of the alternately vast and claustrophobic plain spaces of the abbey. Occasionally artworks and sculptures were arranged along the route – making great use of atmospheric, coloured lighting. See the photo for an example of how a vaulted stone ceiling was lit from beneath and reflected into a pool of still water.

These were interspersed with other musicians – a cellist playing a Bach piece, a flautist beautifully playing Gluck’s ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ in a darkened crypt and, in an almost magical touch, as we climbed out of a crypt up a narrow stairway and emerged into the huge space of the abbey’s nave, the emptiness was filled by the music of a harpist.

To walk through the abbey with the art, music and lights was to luxuriate in the appeal to the senses of art, music, light within the feel and smell of a building that, in parts, dates back nearly a thousand years. It confounded my expectations and was a complete contrast to the touristy clatter below. I read in the guide book that only a third of the hordes even make their way up the mount to the abbey’s walls – far fewer will have been so rapt by it as I was.

There seemed to be something quite understatedly European about the use of art and classical music – I know my German colleagues tend not to think of opera and classical music as somehow elitist – until fairly recently ‘Last Night At the Proms’ was broadcast live on German television.  I’d like to try and convey some of this non-self-conscious appreciation in The Angel.