The Emperor of Paris
By: C.S. Richardson
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
Like his father before him, Octavio runs the Notre-Dame bakery, and knows the secret recipe for the perfect Parisian baguette. But, also like his father, Octavio has never mastered the art of reading and his only knowledge of the world beyond the bakery door comes from his own imagination. Just a few streets away, Isabeau works out of sight in the basement of the Louvre, trying to forget her disfigured beauty by losing herself in the paintings she restores and the stories she reads. The two might never have met, but for a curious chain of coincidences involving a mysterious traveller, an impoverished painter, a jaded bookseller, and a book of fairytales, lost and found . . .
I think I first came across this title across this title in the bookstore last year when it was still in hardback. The cover attracted me and the premise intrigued me (Paris, books, art, disparate characters coming together under curious circumstances) but decided to wait until it hit paperback. On a spur of the moment last week while I was at the bookstore I decided to pick it up; was in the mood for something whimsical and magical (for lack of a better word here).
Simply put: I adored this novel. It’s a slim volume but it’s jam-packed with a lot of story and a lot of background on the characters. I grew to really care for all of the characters that graced this story, from Octavio of the Boulangerie Notre Dame to Henri the bookseller and Isabeau the art restorer. Even secondary characters like Lafrouche and Blind Grenelle were charming and fleshed out. At some points I just wanted to hug all of the characters and tell them that they were all going to be okay. They all live in Paris and cross the same roads but never quite meet until particular circumstances connect them together in a mysterious but wondrous way.
The writing is beautiful, minimalist but it really sets the tone of the story. It also paints a certain atmosphere to the setting of the story; set in the early 20th century, events like the First World War and the flooding of the Seine of 1919 weave in and out of the story and the lives of these characters. There are a lot of great quotes throughout this novel, both introspective and just wonderful in capturing snapshots of life here and there. The author conveys enough to not only get the actions of these characters across but at the same time conveys their thoughts. Readers may take a few “chapters” to adjust to the storytelling as the narrative goes back and forth between an event that takes place in the “present” and goes back to explore the respective characters’ pasts prior to that “present” incident (okay, that’s not explaining the premise any better but you’ll get what I mean when you read it for yourself 😉 ). I love how books, art and the imagination all play a role in the stories of these characters but themes of family and the way we live our lives despite of whatever obstacles come our way.
This review is pretty brief and doesn’t do much justice to the book by far but it’s such a slim novel, I’m afraid of just spoiling the whole thing =P It’s really one of those books you have to pick up and experience for yourself. I cannot recommend it enough; I may have quite literally hugged the book after I read the last line and closed it. If you love reading novels set in Paris in the early 20th century and love novels about books and art, you need to check out this book.