I’ve never read any Elizabeth Bowen before, and I didn’t quite know what to expect from The House in Paris, with its themes of love, sex, betrayal, growing up and the search for identity. To be honest, after reading it I’m still not totally sure how I feel about it. It’s one of those books that left me a bit cold really, because somehow I didn’t quite connect with it or relate to any of the characters. I didn’t hate it, but I certainly didn’t love it. It was an ‘almost’ book that I almost liked, but not quite. Even so, I can appreciate the quality of the writing, the restraint and subtlety, the observations of those quiet moments which seem so understated you almost miss them, but you know they’re pivotal, that something has shifted, and things will never be the same again. It’s kind of oblique – nothing is ever spelled out, motives are never clear, and even the ending is ambiguous.
|A 1976 Penguin edition of The /house in Paris.
In the first section two children are spending the day in a house in Paris. Henrietta, aged 11, is between trains, en route from London to her grandmother in the south of France. Leopold, two years younger, living in Italy with his adoptive American family, is awaiting the mother he has never met… but she never arrives. They are in the charge of Miss Naomi Fisher, half English and half French, dominated by her bedridden mother.
Then we move back in time and the tragic events of the past slowly unfold as the tensions builds. The Fishers once ran a small ‘finishing’ establishment for wealthy American and English girls, including Karen Michaelis, who became friendly with Naomi. The two meet again when Naomi travels to England with her fiancé Max, a charming young man who has a very odd relationship with her mother. In Paris Karen disliked and feared him. Now she is besotted with him, and he with her. They see each other twice more – once when Karen goes to Boulogne for a meal with him, and again when they spend a night together in England. When Karen discovers her pregnancy she turns to Naomi for help so the birth can be kept secret, and her son handed to others who will care for him. Afterwards she marries Ray, the man she was originally engaged to.
Finally, we’re back in the present, when Ray arrives in place of his fragile wife (and without her knowledge) and provides some kind of resolution for poor, lonely Leopold.
All the characters seem lonely and disconnected, searching for a love that they never find,
|Author Elizabeth Bowen.
trying to establish their own identity in a world they cannot understand. Adults and children alike are cruel to each other, with words rather than deeds. Even the Parisian house feels suffocating, ill at ease with the people who live in it and the city around it.
That feeling, I think, emanates from Madame Fisher, as clever, manipulative and malicious as ever she was. It is she who tells Max that Karen loves him, precipitating the action that follows. Was it a ploy to prise Naomi and Max apart, to keep him in her power, knowing that despite their passionate natures any permanent relationship between Max and Karen is impossible? But even she can’t have predicted the outcome of the doomed affair and the way Max reacts to the pressures on him.
Karen is hard to read. Is she ashamed of her behaviour all those years ago? Does she regret giving her child away? Whatever she felt then, she is unable to acknowledge Leopold now. Her reaction to her pregnancy has to be seen in the context of the time. The book must have seemed shocking when it was published in 1935, portraying a woman who pursued her sexual desires and had a child out of wedlock.
Only Henrietta has no connection with the past. She is an onlooker, there because her grandmother is acquainted with Naomi, and knows nothing of the tragedy (which left me feeling emotionally drained). Nevertheless, the day’s events leave their mark on her.
Today was to do much to disintegrate Henrietta’s character, which, built up by herself, for herself, out of admonitions and axioms, (under the growing stress of: If I am Henrietta, then what is Henrietta?) was a mosaic of all possible kinds of prejudice.
Leopold is intelligent, spoilt, self-centred, misunderstood, but he is not unloved – he is loved too much, by the wrong people, and yearns for his real mother. There’s a chance of him growing up well and happy if he sticks with Ray. And I know other reviewers believe Karen will join her son and her husband, but that wasn’t my interpretation.