I first got wind of this book through Book Expo America, a publishing trade show held in New York City. I heard the name Patricia Engel and remembered enjoying Vida, her book of short stories. I don’t generally like short stories, but Engel’s impressed me enough that I wanted to see what she could do in novel form.
I received this book mid-June and bent down to put it in my suitcase – I was packing for my summer home in Deal, New Jersey – and then thought better of it. I’d just read a few pages to see if I was going to like it. Well, a couple of pages turned into a couple of chapters and suddenly it became my book of the moment. I finished it in just a couple of days, taken in by Engel’s measured cadences.
Lita, American-born with immigrant parents, is an inviting narrator – you’ll warm to her immediately. You’ll also identify with her state of longing – because no matter what stage of life you’re in, you long for something. Reading this, you will yearn for your youth or, if you are young, for your dreams, half-pursued. Lita has ventured to Paris to pursue hers – though she doesn’t know what they are yet. This much is true: The world is so much bigger than our immediate towns. Lita realizes this and she is hungry for depth.
In spite of appearances, this really isn’t an individualistic novel. Community resonates – maybe because it takes place in a boarding house called House of Stars. The dynamic between the different girls, their personalities, upbringings and desires, makes for interesting background noise. Ultimately, though, I do wish Engel had either narrowed her scope or examined the girls in more depth. Because, as it is, the focus is Lita, and I felt distracted by these secondary narratives.
The setting is so important to this book, though. The matron of the house, Seraphine, is a cross between Ms. Havisham and Marmee. She’s bed-ridden because of some unknown ailment – or perhaps it’s just agoraphobia – but always elegantly dressed; she is a queen and the girls are her ladies-in-waiting. She’s stagnant because she never leaves her room but she also dispenses wonderful nuggets of wisdom: “We must love the truth, even when it’s the opposite of what we desire”; “One must break the shell to get to the almond”; “… to be beautiful or fearless, you only have to believe it and others will believe it too.” This is why I read – for lines like these – because sometimes they’re meant for me.
There is a romance here too – how can a novel set in Paris be romance free? – but I felt the relationship between Lita and Cato dragged the book down. Lita as a character is so relatable, but together her and Cato are just…drippy. Languorous. Boring. They will remind you a bit of Hazel and Augustus from Fault in Our Stars, though perhaps not because at least those two bantered. With Lita and Cato there’s this sacrificial vibe, an air of dependence, a fatality that subsumes everything in melancholy. Lita must choose between him and her family and the choice she makes is surprising but not explained fully. So that cemented it, then: The end of the book sagged for me. But it did leave me nostalgic and sadly…happy.
So traipse through Paris with Lita as she navigates the tension between obligation and desire. Live vicariously through her Parisian adventure because, thoughts on the book aside, what a beautiful setting for a novel. And enjoy the book this summer. The days are long, the sun is out — there’s no reason not to be as languorous as Lita and Cato.
Many thanks to Grove Press for my advance reader’s copy!