Saturday, March 20, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley

 I chose Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley for my next European Reading Challenge book because of its setting in France. I could have used Band of Sisters, also set in France, but I didn’t think of it because the protagonists were so American. Besides, I wanted to read another book by Jane Smiley.

Many, many years ago, I read A Thousand Acres, a very deserving Pulitzer Prize winner. Then I read The Greenlanders, which I loved even more. But I didn’t find Private Life all that memorable and I didn’t like Moo at all, so I haven’t sought out her other books. But Perestroika in Paris sounded like something very different and I was curious.

Perestroika (called Paras) is a young racehorse, a jumper, from just outside Paris. One day, her groom inadvertently left the door to her stall open and Paras wandered out, just for a look around, and she kept looking until she ended up in Paris.

A thoroughbred alone in the big city should not have gone undetected, especially with the owners searching for her frantically, but Paras has a bit of luck. She is discovered by a stray dog, a German shorthaired pointer named Frida, who has been on her own since her owner disappeared (died). Frida leads Paras to a park where they can both hide away from people who might curb their freedom. A raven (Raoul) swoops down to offer advice. And they meet a duck couple, who also befriend them.

The novel describes the day-to-day life of these animals, mostly how they find food, but also their inner thoughts and vague yearnings. They do make contact with a few humans, shopkeepers who help them out, the caretaker of the park, but mostly they keep their distance. The humans are interesting but decidedly secondary in importance.

At the same time, there is an 8-year-old boy named Etienne who lives in an old mansion with his great grandmother. She is in her late 90's and is blind and deaf. Etienne is her only remaining family. She took care of him at first; now he takes care of her. They make occasional outings to the store, but are otherwise secluded in the house, hiding from do-gooders who would likely separate them.

In the winter, when the cold and lack of forage are beginning to be a problem for Paras, she meets Etienne. He invites her into the house, and a new phase in all their lives begins. 

The story is written in a fable-like manner. Very simply. Very quietly. Conflict is muted. The main looming problem is that Etienne’s great grandmother is coming to the end of her life, and no one knows what will happen next.

It is a sweet, soothing story, pleasantly written, but, unfortunately, a bit dull. 

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