You could call it immersive journalism. Because, let’s face it, there’s nothing like an American in Paris to truly enthuse over every aspect of France, its beautiful Seine and all things French, no matter how frigid.
Sciolino achieved that level of enthusiasm (if not immersion) in her 2016 “The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs.” Now the writer, who was also a foreign correspondent for Newsweek, has written an extended love letter to the Seine, from its ancient underground source in a “forgotten corner of Burgundy” to its drab discharge into the English Channel at Le Havre.
In too many spots, though, “The Seine” reads slightly more like an almanac than a love letter. With this sweeping level of research, the reader has the sense that no tidbit is excluded: The river is 483 miles long; it’s an estuary river (like the Hudson) that rises and falls with the tides; and on and on. In fact, it’s clear that this book is meant not to be read straight through but to be sampled bit by bit, like the delicate macarons that line the shelves of so many patisseries.
With that attitude in mind, it’s fun to select the morsels, from those that will undoubtedly impress and disgust dinner companions to those that might come in handy in a trivia contest. For instance, in the 18th century, the Seine running through Paris was so polluted, it took on the color of whatever was dumped into it: animal carcasses, sewage, tanner’s dyes. Poor people had no choice but to use it for drinking water, which probably contributed to the cholera epidemic of 1832.
Here’s another good one: The death mask made from “L’Inconnue,” a mysterious and innocent teenager who apparently drowned in the Seine in the late 19th century, became a model for Resusci Anne, the lifelike mannequin upon whom many of us learned CPR.
And Francophiles like me might find themselves collecting ideas for new places to visit: the chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte; the Musee Carnavalet in Paris; Ile Saint-Louis for Berthillon ice cream; La Maison Fournaise, where Renoir painted “Luncheon of the Boating Party”; Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Arts.
Sciolino reaches the right elegiac note in her afterword. Although the book was mostly finished before the devastating April fire at Notre Dame, she added a final section that allowed her to conclude this homage to her adopted river, city and country. We learn that without hoses on fire brigade boats drawing from the abundant waters of the Seine, the fire on the Ile-de-France might have been even worse for the cathedral at the heart of French life.
“In the Middle Ages,” she writes, “the Seine contributed to the creation of Notre-Dame. Barges on the river and oxcarts on land brought thousands of tons of stone and other construction materials from faraway places in France to the building site. On the night of the great fire, the river was the cathedral’s salvation.” Sequana, the ancient goddess who gave the Seine its name, “saved the greatest cathedral in the world.”
At the same time, the book falls short in places. An entire chapter on the photography of the Seine offers up just one photo. Granted, it’s a good one, of writer Emile Zola with his camera on the banks of the river, but Sciolino is reduced to writing descriptions of all of the other photographs. In a later chapter she describes an iconic photo of Hitler at Trocadero in front of the Eiffel Tower in 1940, after France surrendered to Germany. “Hitler and his aides are center stage, rendered in stark black and white, the background of Paris in pale shades of gray.” I wish she had been able to offer it as well.
And this love letter sometimes comes closer to the tone of a guidebook. She writes: “We crowded at the front of the deck and snapped the postcard-perfect image. ‘I’ve never seen anything so beautiful,’ said Joanna, a retired schoolteacher from South Carolina.”
Here she describes La Seine Musicale, an arts center that opened in 2017 on an island in the Seine seven miles southwest of Paris: “It is the go-to place to experience some of the best global music and dance, to dine, shop, have a drink, walk through the gardens, and take in the view from the roof.”
The romantic allure of the Seine will do that to people. But there are worse things than being seduced by a river, even if it sometimes leads to a couple of weak-kneed sighs. As the French would say, “Ça vaut la peine” — it’s worth it.
The River That Made Paris
By Elaine Sciolino
Norton. 370 pp. $26.95