Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Paris, by Edward Rutherfurd

Edward Rutherfurd is the closest thing we have to a reincarnation of James Michener, and he has said that he was inspired by Michener's historical novel style: weaving together stories of multiple generations of fictional family members representing different points in the historical timeline of a particular place. His latest takes on the City of Light - Paris. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed all of Rutherfurd's earlier novels, Paris is a worthy addition - a very well-written and well-researched novel of epic scope and impeccable historical research.

Unlike some of his earlier fictionalized place-histories, Rutherfurd chose not to begin at the beginning with Paris. Julius Caesar and the Parisii do not make appearances. The Franks only get a passing mention. Rutherfurd's Paris chronicle opens in the "Belle Epoque" year of 1875, delving back as far as 1261, where the relationships between the several fictional families are established (with a brief reference to the earlier tale of Roland, Abelard and Eloise).

Quite a number of historical characters get speaking roles in Paris, but are mostly limited to single scenes with one of the fictional cast. Henry IV, Richelieu, a young dauphin soon to become Louis XIV, Robespierre, Eiffel, Monet, Hemingway. All three Napoleons and their whole era are conspicuously absent, but the flow of the story is unaffected.

The greatest weakness of most historical fiction writers is character development, and Rutherfurd is no exception. His fictional Parisians are interesting and reasonably complex, but the need to give space to historical persons and events always shortchanges the fictional characters. They behave in ways that are quirky, illogical and irrational - in other words, completely human - yet most are not really satisfying because you don't get a feel for what makes them tick as people. Still, as historical novels go, the fictional characters are pretty good.

Overall, this an outstanding example of historical fiction at its best. The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Even while reading, I was often compelled to take a break and consult Google Earth or Wikipedia to learn more about some detail of Paris history touched on in the novel.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. All of Rutherfurd's expansive novels are crammed with historical detail, but without ever becoming pedantic.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. I appreciated that, on the occasions where Rutherfurd chose a possibly controversial version of a story, he found ways to communicate that to the reader. An example was the French army mutinies of 1917, in WWI. Of course, the true extent of the mutinies was kept secret even in France until recently. In other cases, I didn't feel a need to fact-check details that had no effect on the story line - such as that fact that Henry IV smelled really bad (even by the standards of his time, apparently).
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Yes, as far as it went. There were a lot of historical figures, but mostly walk-ons.  
Score = 3
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Yes. I always look forward eagerly to the next Edward Rutherfurd novel. What's next, I wonder? Berlin? Rome? Vienna? Whatever it is, it will be well worth reading.
Score = 5

No comments:

Post a Comment