Book Review: Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down
by Rosecrans Baldwin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
You Lost Me There, handsome young Rosecrans Baldwin’s 2010 debut novel, garnered about as much praise as a first novel can decently merit, and every word of that praise was richly deserved: the book is a heart-wrenching and gorgeously-written thing from start to finish.
There are fairly strict protocols for how a blushing author follows up such a dazzling debutante ball. The stultifying teaching gig, the long unfocused period idled spending some newly-acquired money, the even longer period of artistic paralysis, where what was once the work of one abstemious evening becomes the shoddier work of a month of nights spent in drunken low-boil panic … and finally that most dreaded of all writerly phenomena: the second novel. 800 pages long. Torturously over-plotted. Shrilly self-justifying. Involving Huguenots. Typically, the second novel is when most authors discover (through trial and enormous error) that their first novel was the only one they had any business writing – a shocking bit of news that usually provokes one of two reactions: either the author abandons writing altogether, or, worse, the author decides to return to that first novel and just keep writing it, over and over again.
Baldwin’s debut novel was so uncannily adept and wise that I was willing to bet his second book would evade all those typical patterns. That second book is Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, and it actually does evade those patterns – but perhaps only by postponing them: it’s not a novel at all but rather an ex-pat travelogue of Baldwin’s adventures in Paris and France with his wife. The book relates how Baldwin got a job working for an advertising agency in Paris and decamped with a song in his heart, foolish-fond Francophile that he was.
This kind of book has a long precedence, of course. Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad is one of the crowning glories of American literature, and William Dean Howells’ Venetian Life is almost equally good in its own way. In more recent times, Robert Hutchinson’s When in Rome and Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk and Mary Taylor Simeti’s On Persephone’s Island have all shown what luminous life can be found in the old ‘stranger in a strange land’ formula, when it’s done well.
It’s done extremely well in Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. In the book Baldwin represents himself as in the midst of writing and selling the book that would become You Lost Me There when he acts on a life-long dream to live abroad. He and his wife go through the complicate procedural vettings involved and find themselves one day living in Paris, despite knowing very little of the language:
Living in another language and speaking defectively, I could not be clever. At best, I was genuine. Accidentally funny, but never funny on purpose. Earnest, not savvy. I’d worked this out, that it was difficult for me to influence other people’s impression of me favorably when I didn’t speak the language well, and apparently this was something that I needed, people having a favorable impression of me based on what I’d said.
So moving abroad was not unlike psychoanalysis.
The book is filled with the kinds of sensory details American readers have come to expect from books about Paris – the pages bombard with descriptions of massive and varied eating and drinking (the third leg of the Parisian tripod, smoking, is mentioned equally frequently, although our young narrator refrains from mentioning how often he himself partook, possibly because “I never voluntarily went 15 minutes without lighting up” would take something of the peach-fuzz romance off the proceedings), and these are far from the only immersive details. Readers who’ve never been to Paris (wisely? I wonder if Baldwin himself, upon re-reading this book, was surprised by how often he mentions how hot it was, almost all the time) will feel something of its sensory impact after reading these pages, and Baldwin is smart enough to anchor it all in pragmatic real-world details, as in his frequent digressions about France’s mercurial president:
Regarding Sarkozy, I suppose I developed a crush on him, too. My eye would linger that extra second at the newsstand when I bought my papers in the morning, where, each day, Sarkozy turned browner, as if tanning on the front page, his family around him bunched together like a clutch of toffee lollipops. Sarkozy’s bronzage was the armor of confidence. It gave the Paris newspapers their radiance – his smugness their hydrogen, his expressions their helioscope.
Chalk it up to a blindness for all things French, but I found Sarkozy beguiling. Whereas my coworkers told me he was a pig, un vrai con.
Despite its title, the book has many interludes that take place away from Paris (the most charming of these is an utterly winning glimpse of Marrakech). Paris or no, in every scene of the book Baldwin displays the same prodigious writing skills that made his novel so memorably enjoyable. This is not only a fantastic portrait of modern-day Paris, it’s also a very realistic and moving portrait of a young married couple, and a psychologically intricate – and very, very funny – portrait of a workplace (Baldwin’s ad agency turns out to be full of ‘characters’ – and our novelist is right there to record and enhance things faithfully). All the novelist’s tools are used here in the service of non-fiction, and used superbly.
Eventually, in a quietly touching scene, he and his wife one day realize they have decided to leave Paris, that their adventure in the City of Light is probably over. The book follows Baldwin back to loud, aggressive, lazy, over-eating New York, which assaults his senses are strongly as every Gulliver’s were struck upon returning from the land of the Houyhnhnms. He settles back in to the life he’d left to go to Paris, but one element of his personality has remained completely unchanged: he’s still a Francophile. At one point one of his French colleagues had told him: “French people have a problem being proud. If we are in public? We don’t say we like anything. We are not assholes – we are, you say, defensive.”
Baldwin probably believed him, the poor sap.