Conley, Susan. “Paris Was the Place”, Knopf, 2013.
Love and Its Costs
Willie Pears teaches at a center for immigrant girls who hope to get asylum in France and as she hears the girls’ stories she finds herself teetering between teaching and being a mother. She had come to Paris to start a new family by finding and reaching out to Luke, her brother and Sara, a friend. Before this really takes hold, she meets Macon, a charming and passionate French lawyer and soon she has the family she was looking for. Just at the same time she becomes involved with Gita, a young girl at the center who is determined to find a better life and Luke becomes ill with a disease that had not yet been named. Because of this Willie reconnects with her father and begins to consider how far one can go for others, especially those she cares about.
The book paints a portrait of the importance of family, the importance of country and the importance of belonging and how belonging can make a difference in terms of survival. Looking at parenthood, family, love and sex, four of the most beautiful aspects of human existence, we get a story of affirmation of that which binds us together.
We also sense Conley’s love affair with Paris. She describes so much in great detail and the city comes to life in her narrative.
There are here the central issues of immigrant girls who come to France to seek asylum and since immigration is so much in the news, the book is very timely. With all of the representation in the media, something has been missing and that is the human element has been forgotten. Conley’s immigration story could be set anywhere—there are those who are unwanted in every country. Many teens have escaped their homes and come to other countries and we are now hearing of the expense of incarceration and deportation and in many cases these young people are treated without mercy and/or justice. We have begun to realize that refuges have little chance and few even get into a courtroom to be heard.
We meet Rajiv who is an advisor to the asylum and he is totally outdone by the system and there is little good to come out of the system. It is the stories of the girls that keep them sane. They write them down and in this way they can leave the degradation in which they are forced to live as they write and these stories are important to the French justice system because through them, when told in court, can they gain freedom.
Willow meets Macon through Gita (he is her lawyer). Gita faces deportation to India and to return to the men who raped her. By using romance, Macon is able to get Willie involved in Gita’s case and as Macon and Willie navigate the system just as Luke is diagnosed with AIDS. Gita’s attempt for freedom will put Willie in a scandalous situation that could close the immigration center and destroy her relationship with Macon.
Aside from the girls and Macon, Willie is also involved in the lives of her brother Luke, who she loves dearly and his partner, Gaird. We get to know Willie by reading about her emotions and we are very aware that her life has been filled with love and disappointment. She has never been afraid to extend herself and to help those in trouble.
The one problem I have with the book is the subplot about her brother and his illness which I immediately understood to be AIDS. Willie discovers that he is ill yet she does not seem to understand what the matter is. In 1989, there were so few people who were not aware of AIDS and given her intelligence, it was surprising that she did not immediately see that this is what made Luke so ill. There are so many subplots here but that does not mean that the novel is difficult to follow. The opposite is true—it immediately draws us in. Conley gives us a beautiful world that is not always just and the characters she draws are large. I really believe that the focus of the book is all about helping others and reminds us what a good story is all about.