One of our recommended books is The Paris Hours by Alex George

THE PARIS HOURS

A Novel


One day in the City of Light. One night in search of lost time.

Paris between the wars teems with artists, writers, and musicians, a glittering crucible of genius. But amidst the dazzling creativity of the city’s most famous citizens, four regular people are each searching for something they’ve lost.

Camille was the maid of Marcel Proust, and she has a secret: when she was asked to burn her employer’s notebooks, she saved one for herself. Now she is desperate to find it before her betrayal is revealed. Souren, an Armenian refugee, performs puppet shows for children that are nothing like the fairy tales they expect.

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One day in the City of Light. One night in search of lost time.

Paris between the wars teems with artists, writers, and musicians, a glittering crucible of genius. But amidst the dazzling creativity of the city’s most famous citizens, four regular people are each searching for something they’ve lost.

Camille was the maid of Marcel Proust, and she has a secret: when she was asked to burn her employer’s notebooks, she saved one for herself. Now she is desperate to find it before her betrayal is revealed. Souren, an Armenian refugee, performs puppet shows for children that are nothing like the fairy tales they expect. Lovesick artist Guillaume is down on his luck and running from a debt he cannot repay—but when Gertrude Stein walks into his studio, he wonders if this is the day everything could change. And Jean-Paul is a journalist who tells other people’s stories, because his own is too painful to tell. When the quartet’s paths finally cross in an unforgettable climax, each discovers if they will find what they are looking for.

Told over the course of a single day in 1927, The Paris Hours takes four ordinary people whose stories, told together, are as extraordinary as the glorious city they inhabit.

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  • Flatiron Books
  • Hardcover
  • May 2020
  • 272 Pages
  • 9781250307187

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$26.99

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About Alex George

Alex George is the author of The Paris HoursA native of England, Alex George read law at Oxford University and worked for eight years as a corporate lawyer in London and Paris. He has lived in the Midwest of the United States for the last sixteen years. He is the founder and director of the Unbound Book Festival, and is the owner of Skylark Bookshop, an independent bookstore in downtown Columbia, Missouri.

Alex is the author of The Paris Hours, A Good American, and Setting Free the Kites.

Praise

An IndieNext Pick and Book of the Month Club Selection

“Exquisite…A testimony to the life-changing power of a single day, the book reads like a Jazz Age Les Miserables.” Columbia Tribune

“Enchanting…Like the film Midnight in Paris…the novel has put us under the spell of the City of Light yet again…Stunning.” —Booklist

“Engrossing…By evoking fictional characters and historical figures with equal vividness and wisely using repeated motifs, George unites his narratives in a surprising yet wholly convincing denouement. Elegant and evocative, this will have special appeal for lovers of Paris and fans of Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife.” Publishers Weekly

“Atmospheric…George’s Proustian homage to a lost time will be a Francophile’s madeleine.” Kirkus

“Delicious.” AARP

“George masterfully concocts a story of people seeking solace, redemption, and answers to the questions that plague them. Like All the Light We Cannot See, The Paris Hours explores the brutality of war and its lingering effects with cinematic intensity. The ending will leave you breathless.” —Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train and A Piece of the World

“A feast of the human soul. In this stunning novel, George goes behind the glitter of Paris in 1927 and takes you to the rooftops, the skinny alleyways, the flower-strewn parks, and darkened bar rooms to mine the wisdom of humanity. Beautifully rendered; gorgeously told.” —Jessica Keener, author of Strangers In Budapest

Discussion Questions

1. Of the four interwoven storylines that comprise the novel—Souren’s, Guillaume’s, Jean- Paul’s, and Camille’s—did you have a favorite? If so, why?

2. Discuss the epigraph: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” Do you agree? How does this novel carry out James Baldwin’s directive? 3. Guillaume tells Suzanne that “any street or square in Paris would give the Folies-Bergère a run for its money.” How does Paris itself become a character in this book? If you have spent time in Paris, did the portrait ring true? Were you surprised by any aspects of it?

4. Younis tells Souren, “We’ll always be from somewhere else, won’t we?” In what ways does Souren’s Armenian background shape his identity? Do you have to be from a place to belong to it? How does Souren’s experience resonate with current debates around immigration?

5. When Suzanne sits for Guillaume, the painting he creates is not of her body but of a cottage in the forest with a door set high on the façade. What did you make of his painting? What resonance does it have throughout the novel?

6. After Suzanne and Guillaume’s night together, Suzanne has no interest in seeing him again: “I want to remember us exactly like this. No fights, no disappointments. No broken hearts. Just a perfect memory.” Do you empathize with her decision? Is a perfect memory sometimes worth sacrificing a potential relationship?

7. Discuss Jean-Paul’s view of the Eiffel Tower: “The combination of first-rate mechanical engineering and such manifest uselessness strikes him as being particularly, deliciously, French.” What does he mean? Does that description of French identity ring true with regard to any other characters or events in this novel?

8. Discuss how each of the main characters continues to be pulled back into the past. Proust tells Camille, “The only place where you can regain lost paradises is in yourself.” In what ways are the characters’ attempts to regain their lost paradises helpful or hurtful?

9. Every day, Souren puts on puppet shows in the Jardin du Luxembourg: “He tells his stories to communicate, to connect with others. . . . The gasps from the audience, the cries of alarm, the applause—this is how he knows he is alive.” Do you sympathize with his belief that art requires audience reception to be meaningful? How do other characters’ views of art differ in this novel? Discuss the tension between isolation and connection that characterizes the artists’ experiences.

10. Although Souren speaks Armenian when he performs puppet shows, his audience can’t understand what he is saying. When he overhears two men speaking to one another in Armenian, then, he is deeply affected: “What moved him about the conversation . . . was not hearing his native language spoken, but hearing it understood. That sense of connection is what he misses so badly.” What does he mean? Do you agree that there are forms of connection that can only be achieved through one’s native language?

11. Jean-Paul remembers one of his grandfather’s beatings during his childhood, after he catches him throwing pebbles at swans. He reflects on the severity of the punishment: “It was only after Elodie was born that Jean-Paul understood that it was the ferocity of the old man’s love for him that had prompted such severe retribution. Love like that raises the stakes.” Does that make sense to you? Are there other instances in this novel where love and cruelty are connected in surprising ways?

12. When Guillaume despairs that he will have to leave Paris without ever learning the truth about his daughter, a priest urges him to find her: “We only get so many chances at happiness. I think we should take every single one of them.” What happiness is available to the different characters in this novel? How much agency do they have to pursue it?

13. When Camille learns that Proust wrote down her secret, she is furious: “He was a thief, a
pirate. He plundered other people’s lives for his own ends.” Do you agree? Are all writers
thieves of a sort? If so, do the ends justify the means?

14. Jean-Paul reflects on Josephine Baker: “All he knows about her is exactly what she wanted him to know. She is the most famous person in Paris, but her celebrity is a mask. That dazzling smile was a suit of armor, hiding her from view.” This novel is peppered with
famous historical figures—Baker, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust—yet
they remain on the periphery of the novel, not at its heart. What do you make of that
narrative decision? What does the novel seem to be saying about celebrity?

15. Jean-Paul tells Josephine that “everyone is running toward somewhere”: “We’re always
gazing toward the horizon, searching for the next adventure. And those who are trapped still
dream helplessly, obsessively.” Do you agree? How do the characters in this novel confirm
or contradict his assessment of the human condition?

16. Were you surprised by the twist at the very end of the book? Do you think Camille and
Olivier’s secret is understandable? Is it forgivable?

17. What is the effect of setting the entire novel over the course of just one day? What do you
think the future holds for these characters?

Excerpt

1

Stitches

THE ARMENIAN WORKS BY the light of a single candle. His tools lie in front of him on the table: a spool of cotton, a square of fabric, haberdasher’s scissors, a needle.

The flame flickers, and shadows leap across the walls of the tiny room, dancing ghosts. Souren Balakian folds the fabric in half, checks that the edges align exactly, and then he picks up the scissors. He feels the resistance beneath his fingers as the steel blades bite into the material. He always enjoys this momentary show of defiance before he gives the gentlest of squeezes, and the scissors cut through the doubled-up fabric. He eases the blades along familiar contours, working by eye alone. He has done this so many times, on so many nights, there is no need to measure a thing. Torso, arms, neckline—this last cut wide, to accommodate the outsized head.

When he has finished, there are two identical shapes on the table in front of him. He sweeps the unused scraps of cloth onto the floor, and picks up the needle and thread. After the sundering, reconstitution. Holding the two pieces of material in perfect alignment, he pushes the tip of the needle through both layers of fabric, and pulls the thread tight. He works with ferocious deliberation, as if it is his very life that he is stitching back together. He squints, careful to keep the stitches evenly spaced. When he is finished, he breaks the thread with a sharp twist of his fingers and holds the garment up in the half-light. A small grunt of satisfaction.

Night after night Souren sits at this bench and sews a new tunic. By the end of the day it will be gone, a cloud of gray ash blowing in the wind, and then he will sit down and create another.

He lays the completed costume on the work surface and stands up. He surveys the ranks of sightless eyes that stare unblinking into the room. Rows of hooks have been hammered into the wall. A wooden hand puppet hangs from every one. There are portly kings and beautiful princesses. There are brave men with dangerous eyes, and a haggard witch with warts on her ugly chin. There are cherubic children, their eyes too wide and innocent for this motley group. There is a wolf.

This ragtag crowd is Souren’s family now.

He unhooks a young boy called Hector and carries him to the table. He pulls the newly sewn tunic over Hector’s head. He turns the puppet toward him and examines his handiwork. Hector is a handsome fellow, with a button nose and rosy cheeks. The tunic fits him well. The puppet performs a small bow and waves at him.

“Ah, Hector,” whispers Souren sadly. “You are always so happy to see me, even when you know what is to come.” He looks up at the clock on the wall. It is a few hours past midnight. The new day has already begun.

Each evening Souren battles sleep for as long as he can. He works long into the night, applying fresh coats of paint to the puppets and sewing new clothes for them by candlelight. He stays at his workbench until his eyes are so heavy that he can no longer keep them open. But there is only so long he can fight the inevitable. His beloved puppets cannot protect him from the demons that pursue him through the darkest shadows of the night.

His dreams always come for him in the end.

2

A Rude Awakening

RAT-A-TAT-TAT.

Guillaume Blanc sits up in his bed, his heart smashing against his ribs, his breath quick, sharp, urgent. He stares at the door, waiting for the next angry tattoo.

The whispered words he heard through the door scream at him now: Three days.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

His shoulders slump. There is nobody knocking, not this time. The noise is coming from somewhere closer. Guillaume turns and squints through the window above the bed. The first blush of early morning sunlight smears the sky. From up here on the sixth floor, the rooftops of the city stretch out beneath him, a glinting cornucopia of slate and glass, a tapestry of cupolas and towers. There is the culprit: a woodpecker, richly plumed in blue and yellow, perched halfway up the window frame. It is staring beadily at the wood, as if trying to remember what it is supposed to do next.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

It is early, too early for anything good.

The shock of adrenaline subsides enough for Guillaume to register that his temples are pounding. He rolls over, spies a glass of cloudy water on the floor next to the bed, and drinks it thirstily. He rubs a dirty palm against his forehead. An ocean of pain to drown in. An empty wine bottle lies on its side in the middle of the small room. He stole it from the back of Madame Cuillasse’s kitchen cupboard when he staggered in last night. It was covered in dust and long forgotten, not even good enough for her coq au vin, but by then Guillaume was too drunk to care.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

It feels as if the woodpecker is perched on the tip of Guillaume’s nose and is jabbing its sharp little beak right between his eyes. It’s typical of his luck, he reflects. The bird has no business in the dirty, narrow streets of Montmartre. It should be flying free with its brothers and sisters in the Bois de Boulogne, hammering joyfully away at tree trunks, rather than attacking the window frame of Guillaume’s studio. And yet here it is.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

The woodpecker’s head is a ferocious blur, then perfectly still again. What goes through its head, Guillaume wonders, during those moments of contemplative silence? Is the woodpecker asking itself: who am I, really, if I am not pecking wood? Am I, God forbid, just a bird?

Three days.

Guillaume lets out a small moan. There are lightning bolts erupting behind his eyes. He casts his mind back to the previous night. He was wandering through Montmartre, anxiously trying to outpace his problems, when he had seen Emile Brataille sitting alone in the bar at the end of his street. Brataille is an art dealer who spends most of his time at the zinc of the Closerie des Lilas, schmoozing with collectors and artists, striking deals, and skimming his fat commission off every painting he sells. He has no business in Montmartre anymore: all the painters whose work hangs on the walls of his palatial gallery on Boulevard Raspail have left Guillaume’s quartier for the leafy boulevards of Montparnasse, where the wine is better, the oysters fatter, and the women more beautiful. Guillaume pushed open the door and slid onto the chair next to Brataille.

The alcohol lingers sluggishly in his veins. How much had they drunk, in the end?

After they were three or four carafes to the good, Emile Brataille made his mournful confession: he’d come to Montmartre to declare his love for Thérèse, but she wanted nothing to do with him. And so here he was, drowning his sorrows.

Thérèse is a prostitute who works at the corner of Rue des Abbesses and Rue Ravignan, next to Le Chat Blanc. Guillaume knows her, albeit not professionally: he has painted her many times. Lubricated by the wine, he embellished this acquaintance into a devoted friendship, and suggested to Brataille that he might be able to intercede on his behalf. At this, the art dealer began to weep drunken tears of gratitude. How can I ever repay you? he asked. Guillaume scratched his chin. I don’t suppose you know any rich, art-loving Americans, he said.

Brataille began to laugh.

Copyright © 2020 by Alex George