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Ruth Reichl's 'The Paris Novel' is a coming-of-age story set in 1980s Paris


Ruth Reichl has written a novel that includes, art, fashion literature, the shadow of buried trauma and awakening to the joy of food in 1980s Paris. Let's ask the author to read from a genuine love scene.

RUTH REICHL: (Reading) The oysters arrived on a deep bed of ice. She had never eaten an oyster, and she stared down at the platter. A ruffle of black encircled each opalescent heart. She thought of orchids. Triangles of lemon sat on the ice, and she picked one up and squeezed it, inhaling the prickly aroma. Then she reached for an oyster, tipped her head and tossed it back. The oyster was cool and slippery, the flavor so briny, it was like diving into the ocean. She closed her eyes to savor the experience, make it last.

SIMON: Oysters, where have you been all my life?

REICHL: (Laughter).

SIMON: Her novel is called "The Paris Novel," and Ruth Reichl, the bestselling author, editor of the Le Gourmet magazine and winner of six James Beard Awards, joins us now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

REICHL: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: By the time we read this scene, a young New York book editor named Stella has lost her mother, who left her with the funds to go to Paris. But why does she almost have to force herself?

REICHL: Stella has had a very traumatic childhood, and how she responds to this is by closing her life down. She has a very small life where she does the same few things over and over again. It's how she feels safe. And so the idea of going to Paris, of going anywhere, of getting out of her routine is horrible to her.

SIMON: Then she gets to Paris, and she says yes to a dress. What happens?

REICHL: So she has this experience of walking into a store, and the sales lady says to her, your dress is waiting for you. She puts it on, and she looks in the mirror, and she has disappeared. And in her place is a glamorous, fantastic creature who she had never imagined she could be. And she desperately wants this dress, but it's very expensive.

SIMON: Oh, yeah. I mean, it - almost to her last dime, right?

REICHL: Exactly. And so she walks away from it, and then the shopkeeper says to her, I will make you a bargain. Wear the dress out of the store and do exactly as I say. And if tomorrow, you want your money back, I will give you back every penny. And so she does the first impulsive thing she has ever done in her life. She puts on the dress. She walks out the door, and she follows the shopkeeper's instructions.

SIMON: I mean, what gets set off in Stella by everything - the dress, the Chablis, the oysters, Paris?

REICHL: She discovers pleasure. She discovers life. She - the first thing that the shopkeeper says is, go and eat oysters and drink Chablis. And, you know, I am a person who really believes that food is a way of coming into the world and that if you allow yourself to really experience food, it opens you up to so much else. And that's what happens to Stella. And then, you know, there's art. And, I mean, the whole world comes to her.

SIMON: She becomes, I think it's fair to say, fascinated in the works of an artist who's probably better known as Manet's favorite model, wasn't she?

REICHL: She was. And this is very close to my heart. I have a master's in history of art. And I actually wanted to write my master's thesis on Victorine, who - we know that she became an artist because she showed in the Salon six times, and she has virtually been erased by history. She's famous as a model but not as an artist. And as a woman, it has always really annoyed me that history has just forgotten her because what she did was really extraordinary. She was a woman, a working-class woman. Women weren't allowed to go to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Working-class women certainly weren't allowed anything. I mean, women had no rights in that France.

And here's this woman who somehow managed to make something of herself. And all of the biographies of all of the artists, the male artists that she modeled for all say that she was a prostitute, a drunkard, a failure. And I always wanted to try and find her work and see what it was like. And so Stella learns the story of Victorine, and she makes it her mission to try and find the paintings. It gives her something to do in Paris and a purpose.

SIMON: I feel compelled to point out Parisians themselves sometimes talk about a syndrome - that Americans will come to Paris, and they expect everything to be light and fall into place. And then they - you know, they see there's a little trash on the street, and there's a McDonald's. And at some level, it's recognizable territory. It's not always the Paris of their dreams.

REICHL: Well, that is partly why I set this book in 1983 because in 1983, there was no McDonald's in Paris, and it was the Paris of our dreams. Paris in the '80s was very different than America. You know, that's not so much the case anymore. I mean, the whole world has gotten smaller for all of us. And, you know, I wanted access to Paris of the '80s, which was - the dollar was very strong. The franc was weak. People like me who had no money in the '80s could be in Paris on a couple dollars a day, which was also kind of dreamy.

But I also wanted the earlier Paris, which is, you know, the Paris of the '20s, which - you know, it's the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. And it's also a kind of an American dream of Paris. And so Jules, this wonderful old man that Stella meets who is in his 80s, remembers that Paris and offers that to Stella, as well. And it was important to me to sort of have the entire 20th century.

SIMON: Yeah. Can I get you to talk about the role of your old editor, the late Susan Kamil, and the role she played, really, for the inspiration of this book?

REICHL: So Susan, who was a legendary editor, I mean, truly one of the great editors - and my last book, "Save Me The Plums," I had a chapter about a little black dress that I tried on. And this is a real story. I tried it on, and it transformed me, and I desperately wanted it, but it was $6,000, and I didn't buy it.

SIMON: This is uncomfortably close to the novel, isn't it?

REICHL: It - well, it is. And because Susan said to me, you know, I love that Paris chapter in "Save Me The Plums" so much. Couldn't you write a novel about it? And the minute she said it, I saw the novel. I mean, I had this notion, I mean, who the characters were. And so I wrote this book very much for Susan, who sadly passed away before she could read the book. And it just - it makes me so sad because I know she would love this book.

SIMON: May I ask, Ruth, is there a lot of the younger you in Stella?

REICHL: No, not at all. I'm not this repressed person that she is. And no, I mean, I tried very hard to make someone who was not me. After all, I've written a lot of memoirs. But what there is in it is everything that I love - art, food, fashion, literature. I got to just put all of my passions into the book.

SIMON: I'm not proud of this last question, but I have to ask it. Favorite oyster?

REICHL: I really - this is a very arcane answer, but Olympia oysters, which are native to the Pacific Northwest in America and which almost vanished and were brought back. And they are exquisite, tiny, little oysters, and I love them. Love them.

SIMON: Ruth Reichl's newest is "The Paris Novel." Thank you so much for being with us.

REICHL: Thank you, Scott. It was really a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.