Art and Anecdotes from One Year in Paris

Book review: A Paris Year, by Janice MacLeod (Amazon / Book Depository)

Bonjour Bonjour Ça va Ça va Ça va Ça va Bonjour Bonjour. It’s really that easy to have an entire conversation in French.
There is no waving hello. This is not the French way. When you wave hello their eyes follow your hand like a litter of kittens. Non. They prefer words.

Janice MacLeod, Canadian expat author/artist in Paris, writes in a loosely styled journal format of a year living in the City of Light, chronicling her “day-to-day adventures.” These include observations on the city and its culture, its people, and jotted, meandering musings from her explorations – seemingly whatever caught her interest on a walk or crossed her mind while painting in a cafe. It weaves in memoir elements: she’d fallen in love with a butcher and like so many, romance was her reason for relocating. With a glowing optimism, perhaps stemming from that, she’s able to find something quietly exciting and promising even in the gloomy, chilly, gray days of the year as she wanders and explores. It sounded like such a dream.

Some of the entries vividly evoke the passage of seasons in the storied city:

There is nothing special about Paris in January, and that’s exactly what makes it so. Too early for tourists, mayhem from the holidays is a memory, and Christmas trees have been tossed in a pile in the park to await the city’s army of trucks to haul them away. Each tiny apartment feels like Versailles now that the guests are gone and the decorations have been stored. All that remains is the city’s twinkle lights, bejeweling streets and boulevards, but even those slowly disappear, taken down string by string by men with tall ladders.

The writings are accompanied by her illustrations of city neighborhoods and landmarks, which are stunning. They’re mostly watercolors, as on the cover, with some pen and ink. Shallow as it may sound, the lovely artwork is why I bought the book. Watercolors aren’t even my favorite, but these are gorgeous, and capture the places so well. Simpler ones depict objects – cafe chairs, Christmas ornaments; the most impressive are of cityscapes, street scenes, Paris’s instantly recognizable buildings and monuments. The author’s blossoming appreciation of her adopted city and what inspired or caught her attention on the streets is beautifully conveyed.

It’s also filled with photos. The contrast between the artwork and photographs is noticeable. It’s tough to take a bad photo of Paris, that does save these to some extent, but only a few make an impression. Many are cropped at odd angles, the composition is strange, or they’re just not eye-catching. When her drawings and paintings are so sublime, the photos pale even more in comparison.

The concept of daily journaling might’ve worked if it had been adhered to, with some observation or note from each day, but something went off course. To compensate, stories or bits of memoir stretch out essay-like across multiple days. These tend to be stories that aren’t necessarily Paris-centric, or are cliched and rarely compelling enough to warrant this extended treatment (although, to be fair, “extended” is relative as all of the entries are quite short and even these multi-day ones aren’t more than a few paragraphs in total.)

Along with my journal, I also take my camera with me wherever I go because one never knows when a lovely moment will reveal itself. Paris is kind to those who appreciate her lines. I can walk down the same street a hundred times and not see anything exciting, then the sun shines down at a particular angle and what was once mundane turns to gold.

One that stretches out is about cameras – it begins with the above nice bit about taking her camera everywhere because one never knows when magic will suddenly materialize, but drags on into thoughts on buying a camera, tourists and their cameras, leaving them behind because they’re too heavy, etc. It’s not Paris-related nor compelling reading in general. I couldn’t figure out why these stories were told when there were other snippets from her time out and about, or cultural observations, describing the markets, and so on that feel more illuminating and would’ve made better, consistent sources of material.

Or a day is a short biography in the form of a few dry facts on someone’s birthday, like Oscar Wilde, or a quote, maybe related to Paris (Henry Miller’s) or maybe not (Bette Midler’s). It’s not particularly interesting nor what I expected in terms of following someone’s Parisian-specific life. The many quotes come from writers, artists, and the like who have called Paris home. Some are utterly delightful, others seem like filler to stretch out the daily-entry-for-a-year concept. I wanted more from the author’s experience and perspectives, and less from other’s quotes, many of which are already well known.

In one instance, a quote is somewhat appropriated without recognition. Describing the lively, trendy Marais neighborhood, she writes that “anyone who lives in the Marais assumes that if you’re not interested in living in the Marais, you must be, in some sense, kidding.” Which should have a ring of familiarity, perhaps especially to proud New Yorkers who quote it liberally, because those are almost exactly John Updike’s words about New York. There’s no nod to his being the one to say them, and for a book almost more peppered with attributed quotes than its own author’s words, that’s a strange omission.

The storytelling is a mixed bag, sometimes it reveals something lovely, elsewhere it doesn’t say much at all and is too brief to be memorable. Her phenomenal artwork is the highlight, and I love the idea of daily journaling while exploring a city and finding new things to delight in, even if the concept wasn’t completely successful. It’s a fast read with wanderlust-inspiring illustrations and the occasional charming observation.

Some lines:

“I searched with such intensity that I was reminded of my own searches for love–the hot stress and the feeling of time being wasted, of feeling left empty-handed, of accepting that I might have to go without.”

“The symbol of Paris is a boat. You’ll see it on the coat of arms, government buildings, schools, and stamps. The symbol comes with the motto fluctuate nec mergitur, translated: “Tossed by the waves but refuses to sink.”

A Paris Year:
My Day-to-Day Adventures in the Most Romantic City in the World
by Janice MacLeod
published June 20, 2017 by St. Martin’s Press

Amazon / Book Depository

23 thoughts on “Art and Anecdotes from One Year in Paris

  1. Hmmm…maybe a bit too meandering? Although…I love watercolors as a medium more than any other and I found that aspect alluring. I was hoping the journaling approach would add more insights, especially from an expatriate viewpoint but it doesn’t seem extraordinary in that respect.

    Thanks for your review as this is beyond helpful! I’ve been to France but not Paris (long story) and still long for a visit but off the beaten paths.

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    1. I was thinking maybe certain days didn’t end up with significant enough material, or were forgotten or something…but I would’ve rather she fudged it and pulled anecdotes from other days instead of the unrelated angle it took of using biographies and quotes and stretching out bland stories. I was hoping for a more insightful expat viewpoint as well. I don’t know why I’m not so drawn to watercolors, but these were captivating. Her use of color is amazing, they make me happy to look at!

      Paris is an eventual must-visit, especially just wandering off the beaten path. It’s such a perfect city for that. I so hope you’ll get there! I lived there briefly and feel bittersweet about it (also long story) so I’ve avoided reading TOO much set there recently (I know that sounds weird). We’re visiting in spring though and it’ll be my husband’s first time and mine in 7 years, so I could finally start reading about it again, crazy as that sounds! I’m so glad the review was helpful for you!!

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  2. Amazing: the sheer number of books about Paris by Anglo-Saxons (the French term for English speakers). Americans seem to have an unlimited appetite for books that include journals like this, food and restaurant reviews, history of other Americans in Paris (like Hemingway or Gertrude Stein or Anais Nin), novels, historical fiction (accurate or not), and more. I have been trying to read books about Paris or about French food by French people to get another perspective!

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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      1. Thanks! I’m not a fiction reader but will look up the nonfiction titles. I do think there’s value in expat accounts of experience in a place, it can reveal so much about culture, language, identity, the immigration experience – just to tip of the iceberg this topic. Paris and France will always hold a special fascination to outsiders, that’s the draw of such a storied, culturally-artistically-literarily-culinarily-(and so on) rich city. This one in particular wasn’t such a strong example, in my opinion, but I don’t think it’s a reason to discount the genre entirely. Just a thought.

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  3. I’m glad you enjoyed the illustrations so much, but it’s a bummer that this didn’t seem to work so well for you! I recently discovered Samatha Dion Baker after a friend read her book Draw Your Day and started sketch journaling so I can’t help but wonder what this would have been like in a format like that.

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    1. I hadn’t heard of her but her illustrations are lovely! And sounds like such a cool idea…I wish I could sketch, I like the thought of a day by day creative project. And yeah, although this one was a bit of a bummer I’m glad to discover her illustrations too, it was worthwhile for that.

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      1. I’m trying to sketch more (I picked up the book and found a lot of inspiration in it!) but it’s definitely hard, particularly since I’m so out of practice. The illustrations from this book look lovely too, though!

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      2. It’s a definitely a constant practice thing. I think projects like that can help with at least inspiring you to try or keep going. I really love the illustrations of things like food cans and little everyday items she does! That also makes it seem kind of manageable to try yourself, instead of attempting a landscape or something. I hope it’ll get you sketching more!

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    1. I wish my language was too! I worked for a short time in Paris plus a few months deep in the country but I think only my food vocabulary got strong, I mangle the rest of it. I prefer it to London too, although to be fair I’ve spent far less time in London than in Paris. I’m sure that one’s not an expellable offense 😉

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      1. Oh that must’ve been so lovely! Sounds like a dream. I would love to visit there someday. I was working in Deux-Sevres near Angers, so not terribly far but didn’t have much opportunity to travel.

        And that’s true, your government’s a bit sensitive these days, isn’t it…must be a strange moment in time waiting to see what happens.

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    1. Oh my gosh, thank you SO much! That was so thoughtful of you and much appreciated! I hope it helps you where you need it – I find the same to be true, sometimes being clear on how you don’t want to structure something is the best way to turn it into what you want. Let me know how it goes for you! (and enjoy the artwork here, I thought it was extraordinary.) Thanks again!

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