Every now and then, you come across a book whose beauty actually takes your breath away. Every chapter, every word, every character is so honestly intimate and without pretense that their natural magic pulls you into the magnificent memory of a bygone era until you don’t want to return to the real world.
C.S. Richardson’s The Emperor of Paris enchants the reader into a dream world of Paris around the time of the First World War. Its delicately-wrought settings transport the reader from a boulangerie in the heart of Paris’s 8ieme arrondissement to a Siene-side book stall and family-run atelier. The reader is pulled into the fantasy world of a more innocent, elegant time- one in which the hyper-connectedness and chaos of our modern world slips away to reveal the intimate daily goings-on of a community where people actually know their neighbours.
Sadly, the delicate simplicity that lends itself so well to Richardson’s honest prose extends too far into the plot of the story. In the time it takes a dream to slip from your memory upon waking, Richardson allows the plotline within his tale to drift and wander down so many different winding, yet scenic, roads that the reader is left confused as to how each additional secondary character should fit into the overall story arc. In trying to convey the scope and character of Paris as a city of books, Richardson fails to tie together the various intimate relationships that the reader develops with each unique character. In trying to write a novel that reconciles the multiple character storylines of films like Love Actually with the sprawling geographic biographies of Edward Rutherford, Richardson loses the ability to clearly express to the reader who the main characters are and how the various storylines knit together. When the ending finally comes, it feels far overdue, to the point where the anticipation has set your hopes so high that reality cannot possibly fulfill them.
For those who have visited Paris, The Emperor of Paris is the equivalent of a visit to Laduree’s famed macaron shop- a magnificent, indulgent (yet refreshing) treat for the imagination that leaves you yearning for more. Yet in delving beneath the surface, the plotline fails to match the honest simplicity and intimacy of the prose, leaving the reader muddled and unsure what to make of the experience. You are left with the impression of having consumed something truly remarkable.
Perhaps the lasting impact of the novel is the way that it instills in the readers the desire to rediscover some of the sparse and elegant innocence of its characters’ lives within their own. The touching and poignant humanity of each character is beautiful and as stand-alones, each is worthy of high praise and admiration. Yet together, they weave an often confusing yet stunning web of the many unique people living, for one reason or another, in the world’s most beautiful city.