When Gertrude Stein claimed “Paris was the place,” she undoubtedly saw a city full of promise and possibility, social and artistic ferment. However, for the young immigrant girls of the asylum center at the heart of Susan Conley’s debut novel, “Paris Was the Place,” the City of Lights in 1989 is mostly a way station. It is a place to be safe during the limbo of awaiting the court judgment that determines if they will be allowed to remain free in France or will be returned to whatever hell they’ve managed to escape.
Into this environment walks 30-year-old Californian Willie Pears, who volunteers to teach the girls poetry as a way to help them learn a concise, persuasive way to tell their stories to a judge, to explain “how they ended up in France and why they cannot go back to their home countries.” Willie, who followed her beloved brother Luke and her college roommate Sara to Paris just five months prior, teaches poetry at the Academy of Paris. She is persuaded by Sara’s activist husband, Rajiv, to work with the immigrant girls, but finding her footing with the group is challenging — personally, academically, and politically. Willie reflects, “We’re in a locked asylum center in the middle of Paris, and what the girls probably need most is a really good lawyer. But poetry is concise. It can hold enormous amounts of emotion.”
As Willie gets to know the girls and their horrific backgrounds, they begin to teach her as much about life as she teaches them about how to express it. They do get a really good lawyer, in the person of Macon Ventri, a committed young man from Canada with whom Willie begins to bond. It’s too bad Conley, author of the acclaimed 2011 memoir “The Foremost Good Fortune,” didn’t stay with Willie’s experiences with the girls and their heartbreaking tales of familial and cultural displacement longer. She writes with a directness and clarity that is moving without being maudlin.
However, as the plot moves onward, the convoluted unfairness of the French legal system provokes Willie to make some unwise choices in helping her vulnerable charges, putting her relationships to Macon, the girls, and the center itself in jeopardy. At that point, Willie and Macon take a trip to India to meet the daughter of a famous poet about whom Willie wants to write a book. It’s a rather abrupt shift of pace and tone, but Conley constructs a vivid travelogue of their sometimes arduous adventure.
The book shifts gears yet again as Willie returns to Paris to find that Luke, who has been grappling with a mysterious as-yet-unnamed illness that is depleting his immune system, has gotten significantly weaker. Luke, who lives with his lover Gaird, has been Willie’s touchstone following the death of their mother. “He’s how I make sense of Paris and of moving away from my father and the open-ended sadness I felt in California. . . . My mother is gone. I feel quieter about her death here.” His precipitous decline plunges Willie into a fever of soul-searching, and Conley writes beautifully, compellingly about confronting death and dealing with loss.
Conley also evokes a vivid sense of Paris, which Luke calls “a city completely committed to smoking and red wine.” Captivating descriptions highlight the hallmarks and quirks of the various arrondissements and neighborhoods with a “you are here” immediacy.
In a way, “Paris Was the Place” is like three interconnected novellas involving the same characters. Satisfyingly, each has its own memorable moments and dramatic arc, ultimately weaving together into an ending that is also a new beginning.Karen Campbell, a freelance writer based in Brookline, can be reached at Karencampbell4@ rcn.com.