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Mark Bosco, S.J. May 17, 2018
Overlooking Paris from Sacre Coeur Cathedral (iStock)  

“The purpose of art is to console and amuse—myself, and I hope, others.” These words by Ludwig Bemelmans, the author of the French classic children’s series Madeline, are an apt way to introduce Liam Callanan’s novel Paris by the Book. Part mystery novel, part love story, part humorous travelogue of Americans in Paris, the book tells the tale of a Wisconsin couple brought together by a mutual love of all things French—and the trans-Atlantic journey their family takes to Paris when one of them goes missing.

Paris by the Bookby Liam Callanan

Dutton. 368 $26

Told in the amusing but candid voice of wife and mother Leah Eady, the novel traces clues about her missing husband, Robert, who has vanished from their home. When an airline record locator for a family trip to Paris is discovered soon after he is reported missing and presumed dead, Leah and her daughters fly to Paris, hoping that Robert has set them on an adventure and is awaiting them in the city of lights. Disappointed that he is nowhere to be found and yet still hesitant to give up their pursuit and admit defeat, the family settles into Paris life, living and working at an English-language bookstore, all the while searching for more clues that might suggest Robert is alive. They engage a lively cast of characters that reminds one that the Paris of the 21st century is both the city of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and an international city of the tourist trade.

Liam Callanan's new novel surreptitiously explores the existential anxieties of the writer’s life, as well as the consolations that come from a life of reading.

At its best, the novel surreptitiously explores the existential anxieties of the writer’s life, as well as the consolations that come from a life of reading. Two texts in particular shape the imaginative world of Paris for this family: Bemelmans’s Madeline series and Albert Lamorisse’s award-winning film “The Red Balloon.” Discussions of both works by Leah and her family abound throughout the novel, suggesting a profundity that is sometimes lost on the reader. Indeed, perhaps Paris by the Book suffers a bit in wanting to amuse and console at the same time. It satisfies best in the amusing and whimsical elements of a family drama, and only second best at offering the consolation for which I think the novel strives.

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