“He just wanted to live his dream of dying in Paris.” So says one of the new housemates of Leticia “Lita” del Cielo on her first morning as a new tenant in the House of Stars, a run-down mansion on the Left Bank in which well-moneyed—or “green-blooded”—young women board year by year. The man under discussion is an American who flew to Paris for the sole purpose of his suicide, and it is through this conversational topic that both Lita and the reader meet the young women with whom she will live during the next several months. We are less than twenty pages into Patricia Engel’s first novel, It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, and the American’s death is the second one to bear mention. The first was Princess Diana, who died in that infamous tunnel crash under Paris as Lita was flying from Newark to the City of Light to begin her year abroad. As we soon learn, love and death are both present in the House of Stars.
Engel’s book is an elegant debut novel, with a judiciously constructed framework. The heady rush of infatuation and first love that Lita and her housemates experience, as promised by the book’s title, finds a full, convincing narrative expression due to the novel’s lithe yet sound structure, as well as to Engel’s deceptively breezy writing style. There is the visceral excitement of realizing that the person you just met is someone you could fall in love with; there is the pleasing banality of quiet evenings with someone you have loved for a while; there is the crushing numbness that follows the rupture of a relationship with someone you loved (or still love). Engel captures the shades of love in all of its stages, but without a whiff of sentimentality—no easy feat given that the story of a twenty year-old falling in love for the first time is such an old one that it’s basically a cliché.
It’s a truism of many of the book’s characters that young women claim to move to Paris for a highbrow reason—diplomacy studies, fashion design—but truly do so for a lowbrow one—finding a boyfriend, a husband, a love affair. Lita, the daughter of Colombian orphans who became rich Americans by building a worldwide Latin American food conglomerate, has been allowed to spend a year in Paris before she returns to the U.S. for graduate school and a role in the family business. At first blush, it appears that focused, grounded Lita will defy the trajectory that has shaped the lives of the other expatriates who populate the novel. Her undoing soon arrives, however, in the form of Cato, a young man whose proper name is Felix de Manou, who is the only child of a draconian, French right-wing politician.
Cato is quiet, sickly, and aristocratic in bearing, and he appears to be the opposite of Lita’s family members, who are verbose, energetic, and hardworking to a fault. Lita is a child of sacrifice, not of privilege, her father tells her. Yet when Lita’s parents explain that before leaving Colombia they chose del Cielo to be their last name, “because they figured the only father they had now was God,” the line sounds as though it is something Cato would say and believe, too. Lita’s inability to see how her love for her family and her love for Cato could co-exist is the hook on which the novel hangs—her myopia is frustrating, from a reader’s perspective, but it also generates enjoyable suspense. To the very end of the book it’s unclear if she will grasp how to live a life that encompasses both familial devotion and romantic love. But then again, she’s young.
What is most intriguing about Engel’s novel, however, is not its attention to love, but its emphasis on death. The radiation clouds from Chernobyl gave Cato thyroid cancer, pulmonary sarcoidosis, and a fluency in the language of mortality; Tarantina, one of Lita’s housemates, lost her parents to a murder-suicide; Lita’s parents’ first baby died before they left Colombia; Cato’s mother and aunt died together in a car crash; there are the deaths that open the novel, and there are metaphorical comparisons to death throughout it. At night, Lita dreams that she and Cato have “died a little;” Séraphine, the countess who owns the House of Stars, tells Lita that “even a woman facing death can have a dream;” Lita’s ex-boyfriend swears that he will love her “into the next life;” Lita tells Cato that he looks like “a corpse” when he sleeps.
Perhaps the prominence of death is an allusion to the withering of first love, to its inevitable demise (for most people), or perhaps it is an allusion to the reality that nothing, not even a year spent living in the House of Stars, lasts forever. Death is a symbol for that other inevitable cycle—every summer, a new set of women move into the House of Stars, forget to go to class, and fall in love for the first time, while those who have had their year in Paris return home to their “safe small lives [with the] memories of our Paris days [relegated] to a quiet trove of photographs and diaries hidden in the back of a closet.”
“They come here for the seduction,” says Rachid, the boyfriend of Lita’s housemate, Naomi. He is describing to Lita and Naomi the attraction of Les Puces, a famous flea market, to those who visit it, but he could also be describing their experiences of life in Paris, as he does a few lines later. “They come for the story […] both of you came to Paris for the same reason all these people come to Puces. You came for a story.” The story of Lita and her year in Paris may be one of the most simple and universal, and in the hands of a lesser writer, perhaps a trite one, but as told by Engel, it’s a beautiful story, and well worth consideration by all readers—even those for whom being twenty is now a memory.
It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris
Grove Press (August 6, 2013)