As the chatty title “It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris” telegraphs, Miami author Patricia Engel’s irresistibly engaging debut novel is a mash note, both to the intoxicating otherness of a city and to the pulsating imperatives of sex and romance for a gaggle of footloose, 20-something expats.
But Engel’s book, set during the late ‘90s, is also a postcard from another time, one in which rumor, wit, shame, crushes, indignations and allegiances play out directly instead of digitally.
As relationships develop among the hip, educated young women at a once-elegant Left Bank boarding house called the House of Stars, the action is not texted or tweeted or Facebooked or Instagrammed. It is lived, openly, often messily and with eyes and ears wide open.
The rhythm of these personal connections, especially among young people, feels refreshingly (and unfortunately) nostalgic. Even the silences between Engel’s characters are filled with intimate meaning, because they are lost in thought, not email.
“There was a time when you could ride on the subway and strike up a conversation with someone, because there was no phone,” says Engel, a New Jersey native who teaches creative writing at the University of Miami. “Those moments when you were walking down the street and meet each other’s eye … that spirit of spontaneity, meeting people, striking up a conversation, has been kind of lost, which is sad.”
“It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris” (Grove/Atlantic) follows Lita del Cielo, the New Jersey daughter of two Colombian orphans who made a fortune in the United States with a Latin food business, in Paris for a year of postgraduate studies. There, she falls in with a dozen other “greenblood” housemates and explores her new independence as class, race and politics intertwine.
"I listened to the stories in their voices," Lita says in trying to solve the girls in the House of Stars, "beyond my early impressions and the basic biographical sketches we'd exchanged, listening and trying to push past their conversation patterns. The way Giada never contributed an original thought, only commenting on those already offered by others. How Dominique, following Loic around with the broken-down look of a circus elephant, was unable to look at a painting without thinking first of its monetary value. Tarentina saw nothing but herself in everything. I showed her the same painting and she launched into a story about her girlhood, the first time she felt a boy's tongue in her mouth as he pressed against her behind a row of trees at the tennis club."
Engel, whose parents are Colombian, says that Paris, like Miami, is inherently interesting for its cross-section of cultures and as a point of arrival and departure for immigrants from Europe and North Africa. Lita, the daughter of indigenous South Americans of unclear ancestry who early on is ridiculed for her "jungle face," eventually finds herself attracted to Cato, son of a virulently anti-immigrant politician.
This plot line, tipping over the ugly rock of xenophobia, balances Engel's City of Light travelogue with a welcome darkness.
“Why would I not go there? It’s part of reality,” says Engel, observing that she is “constantly confronted” by ways that people choose to define her first as a Latina. "Few are the people who don’t experience race. ... To totally ignore it would be dishonest.”
For fans of Engel’s critically lauded 2010 story collection “Vida,” a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, there is little to connect the sheltered Lita to that book’s tough young, Colombian Jerseyite, Sabina Rios. But the two books do share Engel’s gift for vivid and telling detail.
The aging House of Stars holds a "bouquet of old tobacco, lingering despite all those little glass bowls of lavender potpourri." The proprietor's grandson passes along tips for sneaking into the Louvre: "Always go through the Richelieu or Sully wings, where the guards rarely check for tickets." And a twilight drive from Deauville to Blonville-sur-Mer is memorable for "rock walls, sheep, cows like toasted marshmallows scattered along rolling green meadows."
“A lot of writing has nothing to do with writing, but has to do with living a full life,” Engel says. “I do think I have a writer’s eye, and I like to get out and meet interesting people, which creates more interesting characters.”