Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review: The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay

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Some of you might remember that I recently reviewed Sarah's Key (also by Tatiana de Rosnay) for the blog.  It was one huge, awesome, life-changing, sobfest that should be read by all who love history and Paris.  When I saw that de Rosnay had published yet another piece of historical fiction set in Paris I couldn't resist having a read.  The House I Loved is not nearly the intense emotional roller coaster that was Sarah's Key.  It is, however, a deeply touching and uniquely told love story about a man, a woman, and the house that came to represent their connection.  
The story is told through a series of letters written from the elderly Rose Bazelet to her deceased husband, Armand.  The letters detail her present life as she takes a stand against the Prefect and Emperor Napoleon by remaining in her house even after it has been scheduled for destruction in the Emperor's vast plan of modernization.  Rose's letters swing form past to present, describing poignant episodes in her past like treasured memories of her son, her strained relationship with her daughter, and the things she missed most about Armand as well as important events in her present and several things she discovered about herself after his death.  Rose wants to reveal everything to Armand  before their home on the Rue Childebert is destroyed to make way for the new Boulevard Saint-Germain.  She speaks of her trials living in the condemned home with no heat and with all of the memories of their shared life pressing down around her.  She also speaks of the friends she has made since her husband's death.  M. Vincent, the owner of the neighborhood book shop who inspired in her a new love of reading late in life; Gilbert, a rag picker who takes care of her as she takes her stand against the destruction of her home; the Baronne de Vresse who shows her the finer side of Parisian life.  Finally, there is Alexandrine, the young, vivacious flower-shop owner and Mme. Bazelet's tenant.  Alexandrine demonstrates true friendship to the aging Rose and their fates become irrevocably intertwined.

De Rosnay once again successfully blends a grand historical event - this time the transformation and modernization of Paris during Napoleon III's reign - with an intensely personal story of love, grief and dedication.  I loved learning about a point in Parisian history that has heretofore been practically unknown to me.  Personally, I love the "modern" Paris that Napoleon and the Baron Haussmann created in the last half of the 19th Century.  However, when I walk down the Champs  Elysées.    It never occurred to me that in order to create the wide boulevards and beautiful buildings we think of as quintessentially Parisian, hundreds of tiny ancient streets were erased from maps and thousands of people were displaced from their family homes.   

From this broad realization to the intimate struggle one woman, fighting the desires of an entire empire, it was a beautifully told story.   The style of writing was such that I found I could identify with Rose's struggle to let go of the house that meant so much to her.  She couldn't move on.  There was nothing to move on to.  That house was her life.  It was her life with Armand.  After you read her letters you feel as if you know her as a good friend and you understand her position.  She had no choice but to stay until the bitter end.  

I highly recommend this book as a quick read (especially for lovers of old homes and Parisian history).  It is a dear story and I am so very happy that I had the opportunity to get to know these extraordinary characters.  

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