Authors: Eloisa James
Paris in Love
is a work of nonfiction. Nonetheless, some of the names and personal characteristics of the individuals involved have been changed in order to disguise their identities. Any resulting resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental and unintentional.
Copyright © 2012 by Eloisa James
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., and Curtis Brown, Ltd., for permission to reprint “Their Lonely Betters” from
by W. H. Auden, copyright © 1951 by W. H. Auden. Electronic book rights are administered by Curtis Brown, Ltd. Reprinted by permission of Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., and Curtis Brown, Ltd.
An early draft of “A Parisian Winter” appeared on the blog One for the Table (
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Paris in love : a memoir / Eloisa James.
1. James, Eloisa. 2. Authors, American—Biography. 3. Women authors,
American—Biography. 4. Americans—France—Paris—Biography. 5. Cancer—
Patients—Biography. 6. Life change events. 7. Quality of life—France—
Paris. 8. Self-actualization (Psychology) I. Title.
Jacket design: Claudine Mansour
Jacket illustration: Sophie Griotto
n December 2007, my mother died of cancer; two weeks later I was diagnosed with the same disease.
I’ve always been an obsessive reader of memoirs, particularly those that revolve around terrible diseases. While gawking at car accidents gives you a toe-curling sense of shame, perusing a memoir about multiple sclerosis, for example, has an air of virtue—as if by reading about other people’s tragedies, you are gathering intelligence about your own possible future. Having read at least ten cancer memoirs before my diagnosis, I was quite sure about what would happen next.
I immediately started anticipating the epiphany when I would be struck by the acute beauty of life. I would see joy in my children’s eyes (rather than stark rebellion), eschew caffeine, and simply
, preferably while doing yoga in front of a sunset. My better, less irritable self would come out of hiding, and I would stop wasting time at the computer and sniping at my husband.
I have cancer … but the good news is that I will learn to live in the moment.
Or perhaps not.
When the Life-Is-Precious response didn’t immediately appear, I delayed making joy my modus vivendi while I looked for a doctor. My mother had demanded that her surgeon give her at least enough time to finish her novel-in-progress, and her surgeon had delivered. Mom had the copyedits right there in the hospice with her. I couldn’t concentrate on joy when I was obsessively trying to figure out which breast specialist would give me the time I wanted—about forty more years. Maybe fifty.
My sister, Bridget, who is science-minded and capable of retaining unpleasant medical facts, accompanied me on the quest for the right oncologist. We first saw a fierce woman on Madison Avenue who had decorated her office with Wonder Woman dolls. I took this as a sign of somewhat juvenile (but welcome) joie de vivre, but Bridget deemed it too self-congratulatory. Dr. Wonder Woman was ready to battle tremendous odds; her eyes shone with a true-believer fervor as she prescribed removing various parts of my body and radiating much of what was left. She wrestled me onto a cot and drew blood for a gene test right there in her office. “Don’t worry about your insurance,” she said blithely. “After they hear your family history, they’ll pay up.”
Once I learned that I didn’t have the BRAC gene, the one that brands you with a big red C for cancer, I couldn’t get myself to go back to her office. For BRAC carriers, Dr. Wonder Woman offered a scorched-earth policy and the zeal to Fight the Good Fight. I had started sleeping better once I decided that my early-stage case was like herpes, another disease I’d read about and hoped to avoid: disagreeable, but hardly terminal.
Eventually Bridget and I found a calm, quiet oncologist who recommended radiation and hormone treatment, but also noted the salient fact that my breast was the culprit. I stopped thinking
about herpes. This was a part of my body that I could live without. In rapid order, I lost that breast.
But having escaped chemotherapy and radiation, did I have the right to call myself a survivor, especially when my newly reconstructed breast turned out to be so pneumatic and round? I decided the answer was no, explaining my lack of epiphany and my disinclination to watch the sun rise from a downward dog position. No pink ribbon for me. Obviously, my diagnosis just wasn’t serious enough to change my personality.
Lucky me. I had a better profile but the same old psyche.
And then, without consciously deciding to, I began to shed my possessions. I started with my books. Since I was seven, I had compulsively collected novels, cataloging them and keeping my favorites close to the door in case of fire. My boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia bore a large sign instructing my parents not to forget it as they carried my (presumably unconscious) body through the door, just before the ceiling fell in.
Now, though, I started giving away books with abandon. My husband, Alessandro, had weathered my bout with cancer with considerably more aplomb than he did its aftermath. As I purged my own belongings, I proselytized the same, but to no effect. Alessandro was flatly uninterested, as anyone might have guessed from the neatly labeled boxes in our attic containing every exam he’d given since 1988. I sometimes worried that the floor might buckle from the tons of Italian literature stored under the eaves. The day he discovered three of his books that I had mistakenly placed in a box labeled Goodwill shall not soon be forgotten in our marriage. It was like our honeymoon night, when he set alight an ornamental fire in our room at the bed-and-breakfast and smoked out all the sleepy guests. That blaze is stuck in my memory, and those three books are stuck in his.
But I didn’t stop with books. I did the same with my clothes, jettisoning unopened packages of black stockings from the eighties, the silk nightgown I’d worn on my smoky wedding night, miniskirts in size six. I gave away our wedding presents. My high school term papers hit the recycling bin, followed by college essays and even the children’s artwork, which I had once found endlessly endearing.
For years we had talked of living in Manhattan, in the nostalgic fashion with which my mother used to inform me that she might have been a ballerina, if only I had not come along. Alessandro had grown up in an apartment in the center of Florence; he hankered after narrow alleys and the noise of recycling trucks smashing wine bottles at 4:00
. But I grew up on a farm, and when we moved to the East Coast, I had insisted that we live in the suburbs, even though I would be teaching in the city. I thought that parenthood entailed a backyard, a tree, and the sacrifice of urban delights.
So we had settled into a charming house in New Jersey, with a backyard, a mock pear tree, two studies, and forty bookcases. But now, all these years later, lying on the couch recuperating from my surgery, I realized that I had no close friends nearby who might stop in and bring me tea. The people I loved were New Yorkers who braved the bridge and tunnel to bring me certificates for day spas—in the city.
We found a realtor.
Staring out the living room window at that mock pear tree, I also discovered a keen desire to surprise myself. Rather than living
life in the moment, I wanted to live someone else’s life—specifically, that of a person who lived in Paris. Being a professor has many drawbacks (such as a minuscule salary), but having no time off is not one of them. We could each take a sabbatical year; we simply needed to renew our passports. Once Alessandro found
that there was an Italian school in Paris that our bilingual children could attend, I turned my back on the pear tree and bought new drapes for the windows. I filled the empty spots in the denuded bookshelves with pink vases. The house sold in five days, during the worst real estate market in decades. Our cars were last to go.
Luca and Anna, the younger members of our family, were less than enthralled, to say the least, at the prospect of decamping to France. They were particularly struck by the fact that, of all of us, only Alessandro spoke French. (Although they had received good grades for three years in French class, they were right: they couldn’t speak the language.) I informed my disbelieving children that inability to understand our neighbors would make their experience more gripping. Threatened with insubordination, I pointed out that I, too, had loathed my parents at their age; instigating fear and mutiny in one’s offspring is a parental duty.
Friends were kissed goodbye, Facebooking promises were made, toys were packed. Large amounts of logo-emblazoned clothing were purchased, since a savvy friend promised us that a prominent display of American brands would ensure popularity in the Leonardo da Vinci School.
Paris awaited: a whole year with no teaching and no departmental responsibilities, just
la vie Parisienne