|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,
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.
|Author Elizabeth Bowen.|
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.
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.