At the start of Isabel Costello’s sensitive and sensual debut novel, Alexandra, a British-American living in France, tells her therapist, “The first time I caused terrible harm to those I love it was an accident. The second is the reason I’m here.” After the dreadful accident that blighted her childhood, the trauma of endometriosis and associated infertility leading to a brutal end to a long engagement, she’s found happiness in Paris with a job in publishing and marriage to Philippe. But her narcissistic mother is the last person she’d want to draw attention to the fact that her husband of five years is having an affair.
Yet this is Paris, city of lovers, and the French are much more relaxed about adultery than the Anglophone nations. So, when the opportunity arises, why shouldn’t Alexandra find some passion outside marriage too? It shouldn’t matter that Jean-Luc is seventeen years her junior but it certainly matters that he’s the idolised only child of Philippe’s best friend. She ought to know better but, over that hot summer, the relationship becomes an addiction. It’s not only that she’s flattered that a younger man should so delight in her, but that the sex takes her imperfect body where it’s never been before.
As love and lust increasingly mimics madness, Alexandra struggles to appear sane amid the demands of her work, socialising with Jean-Luc’s parents and the arrival Philippe’s teenage daughter from his first marriage. While concerned from the start about the hurt her actions might cause others she cares about, even Alexandra can’t anticipate the enormous risks she’s undertaken in becoming embroiled with Jean-Luc.
The therapist in Paris Mon Amour does not have a voice but provides the frame through which Alexandra tells her story. I’m not sure she’s entirely necessary but, like a good real-life therapist, she doesn’t intrude and Alexandra’s occasional breaks from the narrative to speak to her directly definitely ring true.
Having received my copy directly from the author, whom I’ve known online for a few years through her deservedly-popular Literary Sofa blog, I hoped I’d like it enough not to feel awkward about my review. It turns out it’s been a delight to read, review and hopefully tempt other readers to give it a try. The language is lovely, the Parisian setting beautifully realised, the plot expertly handled, the predicament psychologically astute and the characters all have emotional depth. With sensual and unflinching descriptions of sex, it’s a risk-free alternative to an affair if you’re that way inclined. (And, if the USPs of “the real Paris” and “a grown-up take on sexual politics” don’t sell it to you, as they didn’t particularly to me, be reassured by the epigraph from Baudelaire reminding us that, like any good novel, this one is about “the horror of life and the ecstasy of life”.)
Anyone who still believes the book business is a meritocracy will be chilled by the story of Isabel Costello’s publication journey. Her blog followers rejoiced when she found herself with a choice of agents and commiserated when the novel didn’t attract a publisher. Then we raised another cheer when, like I did, she signed a contract with a small press. Canelo published Paris Mon Amour in e-book and audio last year. Unfortunately, however, they couldn’t cater for the dinosaurs for whom book equals print. So she decided to self-publish in paperback under the Literary Sofa imprint on 22nd May this year. I’m very glad she did.
For another novel a woman’s affair in the context of fictional infertility, see The Daughter of Lady Macbeth which I reviewed a few days ago.
At the tail end of the 1980s, at the age of twenty-four, Alice packed up her belongings to store at her mother’s house in Portland, Oregon, to set off with no particular plan, to Ireland. A chance encounter took her to Sligo where she eventually settled down to marriage to local man, Eddie, without being entirely sure why. At the heart of Alice’s character, perhaps through her father dying so soon after she met him in early adolescence, is a sense of free-floating longing and fear of abandonment. Perhaps that’s why, a few years into her marriage, she embarked on a passionate affair that felt “like enlightenment, it was like being in the truth, which is a funny thing to say about deceit …”
Years later, and mourning her mother’s death, Alice is back in Ireland, this time in Dublin, after a career writing reports for NGOs in some of the most troubled parts of the world. Here, she reflects on her past as she tries to heal herself sufficiently to face the future.
Like real life, Molly McCloskey’s fifth book follows a meandering path to an unclear destination. While beautifully written, I found the style, with a different balance of showing and telling than usually recommended by the creative writing industry, overly distancing initially. In addition, Alice’s passivity militates against forming a strong sense of her character until we get a taste of her grown-up career. Nevertheless, if you’re frustrated with heavyweight plotting and formulaic novels, it’s definitely worth persevering for what turns out to be an intelligent and articulate examination of love, life, ambivalence and home. Thanks to Penguin Ireland for my review copy.
A quick mention for my two short stories about fictional affairs (Silver Bangles; Four Hail Marys) before we turn our attention to the question of whether it’s ever wise to have an affair. I ask because wisdom is the topic of this week’s flash fiction challenge. It’s a tricky one: I wondered about the difference between wisdom about ourselves versus wisdom about the world, and finally came up with more of a meditation than a story.
It’s easy, they said, as easy as breathing, just follow this five-point plan. It’s hard, camel-through-the-eye-of-the-needle difficult, but, if you give us the money, we’ll show you how it’s done. No-one can tell you the answer, you’ve got to seek it inside yourself. There’s a pattern, proofed against any fool prepared to apply herself to the task. There’s so much to learn, you can’t waste a minute. There’s so much, you might as well not try. What’s wisdom, the nub of ice that melts in your fingers or the mountain of knowledge the ocean obscures?