There are readers — many of them — to whom Eloisa James will need no introduction, and others to whom she will. Inasmuch as she leads a singularly interesting life, let’s introduce her first before getting on to the business of “Paris in Love,” the most recent of her many books.
When Eloisa James is not Eloisa James, she is Mary Bly, the daughter of the poet Robert (“Iron John”) Bly and his first wife, the late Carol Bly, a respected writer of short stories. As Mary Bly, she has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and post-graduate degrees from Oxford and Yale. She is on the English literature faculty at Fordham University in New York, whose Web site describes her specialty as “early modern drama, with interests in boys’ plays, queer theory, puns, London.” She has published two academic books — “Consuming London: Mapping Plays, Puns, and Tourists in the Early Modern City” and “Queer Virgins and Virgin Queens on the Early Modern Stage” — and is at work on a third, “The Geography of Puns,” which the Fordham site calls “a project addressing the geographical and linguistic economies of early modern London.” She also lectures frequently on Shakespeare and other subjects, and delivers several such lectures during the period covered in “Paris in Love.”
So, you think, a conventional 21st-century academic career, complete with scholarly works that probably never will be read outside the tiny circles of “early modern drama” and its related studies. Well, think again, for Mary Bly, like Clark Kent, slips into the nearest telephone booth, quickly changes clothes and zooms out as . . . Eloisa James! Who, you ask, is Eloisa James? She is the author of 25 romance novels, all of them apparently hugely popular. Published as paperback originals by Avon, they include “Desperate Duchesses,” “Potent Pleasures,” “The Taming of the Duke,” “Your Wicked Ways” and “Pleasure for Pleasure.” Their vivid covers invariably show gorgeous women and, from time to time, muscular but sensitive men. Go to www.eloisajames.com, and you will be presented with a panoply of pleasures, all obviously designed to put you in the mood not so much for love as for plunking down $7.99 for “The Duke Is Mine,” the latest of her bodice-rippers.
But wait! Not merely is she a scholar and a romance novelist, she’s a wife and a mother. Her husband, Alessandro Vettori, is an Italian nobleman who teaches Italian at Rutgers University, and they have two children, Luca and Anna. They live in New York except during the summers, when they move to Tuscany to be with Vettori’s mother and his extended family.
If that sounds to you like a pretty good life, that’s the way it sounds to me, too. Not only has Eloisa James clearly given them enviable financial flexibility, but leading the academic life gives them plenty of time off. So awhile back they decided to take a sabbatical year and live in Paris. They sold their house in New Jersey, found “an Italian school in Paris that our bilingual children could attend” and headed to France: “In August we moved to an apartment on rue de Conservatoire, a two-block-long street most notable for the music that floats, on warm afternoons, from the open windows of the conservatory. We found ourselves in the 9th arrondissement, in a quartier that is home to various immigrant populations, the Folies Bergere, and more Japanese restaurants than I have fingers.”
She’d thought she would do a lot of writing in Paris, but “virtually the only writing I did was on Facebook, where I created something of an online chronicle, mirroring it in even more concise form on Twitter.” Eventually she turned all that into this book, “a selection of these posts — organized, revised, a few expanded into short essays.” It is a book that strives mightily to be charming and from time to time succeeds, but what James and her family did while in Paris is not always as interesting to readers as it clearly was to them. Given the immense size of her ferociously loyal readership, though, this seems unlikely to keep “Paris in Love” off the bestseller lists.
“Paris in Love,” James writes at the end, “is about a tremendously joyful year, one that I sometimes remember now through a rosy haze of chocolate and lingerie. But the joy didn’t come from chocolate alone. Surrounded by people speaking a different language, our family started talking to each other. We grew into a very small tribe (population: four), who ate together, and squabbled together, and mostly played together. We learned to waste our moments — together.” Don’t be misled by that into thinking that there isn’t a lot of chocolate and lingerie in the book, because for James, Paris is “a jumbled-up buffet of earthly delights,” a “materialist’s playground,” and she was more than ready to play. I didn’t bother to keep score, but a fair guess would be that at least 50 percent of the diary-like entries involve consumerism in one form or another: shopping for clothing, for gimcracks or for food, not to mention eating in restaurants.
By her account James is a faithful churchgoer, but on the evidence of “Paris in Love” it appears that her true Parisian cathedral is not Notre Dame but Galeries Lafayette, “surely one of the most glamorous department stores in the world,” to which she was drawn as the moth to the flame, and which seems to have burned a very large hole in her pocketbook. Awed by the elegant women of Paris, she decided that “I want to know what elegance looks like at age fifty, a milestone that looms just a few years away,” and that indeed she will reach this year. “I refuse to find myself in my second half century still wearing my furry shoes and Alessandro’s sweaters,” she writes. “I intend to learn precisely what these French women buy and, perhaps just as important, how they manage to look so commandingly elegant after attaining ‘un certain age.’ ”
Whether she achieved that goal is not conclusively demonstrated, but if she didn’t, it wasn’t for lack of trying. No doubt shopaholics will revel in her descriptions of Galeries Lafayette and Bon Marche as well as the various boutiques into which she wandered; others less afflicted may in time find them a trifle wearisome. Give her credit, though, for not succumbing to the mythology of Parisian restaurants. At one “charming” place, “it should have been a perfect evening, but the food was not good,” an unhappy discovery that “happened a lot here.” She discovered that “a nation of brilliant cooks tolerates a great many pedestrian restaurants — and this one hadn’t a tourist in it to excuse its mediocrity.” Later she writes, “After a year in Paris, and multiple dispiriting experiences eating criminally bad food, I’ve come to the conclusion that the legendary brasseries — the ones where the waiters wear long aprons and the lamps pretend to be fueled by gas — should be avoided at all costs.” At other times France was just too French for her:
“Today I tried a traditional French delicacy called andouillette, which is a sausage made from a pig’s intestines (chitterlings). I’m determined to investigate all the food that I reflexively avoided as a younger person, but I shall continue to avoid this one. Once cut, the sausage fell into pieces whose original design was all too evident. In short, the texture was revolting. Culinary adventurousness can go only so far.”
Right on. A dozen years ago I had exactly — exactly — the same experience, with exactly the same dish. I’d thought I was getting nice andouille sausage a la Louisiana; instead I got pig entrails. Paris may be a moveable feast, but sometimes the feast needs to be moved into the garbage pail.
PARIS IN LOVE
By Eloisa James
Random House. 260 pp. $26