Book: Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik

New Yorker magazine writer moves to Paris in 1995 for five years with his wife and young son and writes a very fine book about it

Adam Gopnik
Paris to the Moon
Random House
ISBN: 0-375-75823-2

If it didn't say on the cover of Paris to the Moon that Adam Gopnik writes for the magazine The New Yorker, you could guess it after a few pages. He's writing for New Yorker readers: he doesn't stop to tell the reader what an arrondissement is (it's like a neighborhood in Paris but numbered and precisely delineated) or why the IRT should dull one's hearing (it's a New York subway line). But if you are the sort of person who reads The New Yorker or are prepared to Google for a few definitions, Paris to the Moon is a pleasure to read.

Mr Gopnik moved to Paris in 1995 with his wife and young son and they spent the next five years there. Paris to the Moon is a collection of 23 essays, mostly about Paris and their life there. The essays are sometimes touching and often pretty funny. It seems that at least some of them were first published elsewhere but they work together in the book quite nicely. The book doesn't have the feel of something put together out of scraps.

I'll cheerfully admit to liking the book much more than I expected to. I expected a style of writing that required head-scratching more than Googling. Mr Gopnik does go a bit over the top when he says that people who like food don't discuss it and that not discussing it is a "speech act" (p. 275). I find "speech act" defined ever so clearly over here. But that's very much the exception. In general, Mr Gopnik handles even subjects that might invite obscure descriptions with elegant simplicity. He writes about the trial of a French war criminal (p. 115):

    Inside and outside a French courtroom, abstractions pile on
    abstractions, and by the end you are so distracted that you are
    unable to face plain facts: children in a cattle car being
    delivered to a death camp. It was not just that you could not
    see the trees for the forest. It was that you could not see the
    forest because it was covered by a map.

That last metaphor is brilliant. Just as good is the beginning of another essay where he says, "My fax machine, which was made by the French state, always blames someone else when things go wrong" (p. 86). The stories in the book are good and Mr Gopnik writes beautifully. I'm even prepared to forgive him for his disparaging remark about Minnesota license plates (p. 79).

At the end of the book is a section called Questions for Discussion with seven college-exam style questions. I'd like to think that Mr Gopnik didn't write them. After that is a section called Further Reading in which Mr Gopnik (or someone) mentions only books about Americans in Paris, with the result that no book is mentioned that's much like Paris to the Moon. If it's precisely Americans in Paris that interests the reader that's fine, but it seems to me that it would be more natural to read M.F.K. Fisher or Susan Hermann Loomis (who makes an appearance in the book) or Peter Mayle after Mr Gopnik rather than Henry James or Ernest Hemingway.

Posted: Fri - December 5, 2003 at 08:14   Main   Category: