The Emperor of Paris is not so much a love story as a story about love. In chaos theory, a butterfly flaps its wings and several weeks later there is a hurricane on the other side of the world. This novel is about the miracle of such effects. “Tell me how we came to this,” the novel ends. And thus: This beautiful story, capturing the way in which decades of events both inconsequential and catastrophic – a gift, a flood, a war – result in the meeting of one man, one woman. That moment.
“Amid the millions of words written on the subject, the memories of a first blush, the retelling of when-we-met stories, there was no logical explanation. Science and religion offered no biological causes or revealed truths. The snowflake beginning the avalanche remained unseen; the dewdrop that started the deluge could not be identified. Yet there were theories, plenty of those, concerning how one found love.”
I knew from the first page that The Emperor of Paris would be a fine novel, and I soon concluded that it was much more. It’s a book to savour.
The love of books is a thread throughout. A gift of a book sets everything in motion. Isabeau hungrily consumes books, marking them aggressively. Henri Fournier, a bookstall owner, stands on his grandfather’s magical book to levitate. Octavio, a baker who cannot read, fills his attic with red books, the spiral staircase with blue, his kitchen with green, the volumes flooding his house with colour.
Richardson creates a world of touching innocence, but it’s not a world devoid of harsh realities. Men go off gaily to fight in the First World War, only to return unspeakably broken.
Throughout are images of eddies and currents, ebbs and flows. Through wind and water – the Seine floods! – the characters move toward a fated history, the narrative folding and unfolding. “This sea of war would lap at the bakery’s doorstep …”
There’s quite a cast of characters for such a slender book: Emile Notre-Dame (the Thinnest Baker in All Paris), his big, depressed wife Immacolata, and Octavio, their illiterate son. There’s dress designer Pascal Normand and his fashionable wife Celeste, who gives birth to Isabeau, scared and soulfully beautiful. Three generations of the Fournier family own a bookstall on the Seine. A blind watchmaker and an impoverished artist play a part, among others … and, throughout, like a Greek chorus, a crowd, referred to simply as “the gossips.”
The novel unfolds in two streams: a present moment – a burning building, a baker, a young woman – and the long past, a world of charmingly eccentric characters whose random actions all lead up to that singular present. I was hurried when I began the novel and cutting back and forth between the present and the past confused me at first. I paused, slowed down, and was well rewarded. This is not a story to read in a rush. This is a novel to relish, sentence by sentence, image by image.
“The old woman would step into the light under each street lamp, then glide from one lamp to the next, disappearing only to reappear, eventually to reach the corner and be gone.”
C.S. Richardson was born in Regina and raised in Toronto, where he lives with his wife and two children. He is an award-winning cover designer for Random House; his is a life of books. “I’ve always been a fan of words, of words themselves,” he has been quoted as saying. “I am one of those people with a love of words.” This is obvious.
Richardson’s first novel, The End of the Alphabet, was published internationally and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada and the Caribbean). Gentle, poignant, elegantly written are words readers have used in their reviews of The End of the Alphabet, and they describe The Emperor of Paris as well.
It’s hard to rave noisily about such a quietly beautiful novel, but I will try. The Emperor of Paris is brilliant; it lingers; I will read it again, and again. (In fact, I will read every novel Richardson writes.) If you love finely crafted sentences and spare, elegant prose; if you love charming characters and a tender, affecting story; if you love books and Paris and boulangeries, you will love this novel.
Sandra Gulland is the author of The Josephine B. Trilogy and Mistress of the Sun. She loves sentences and books as well as Parisian boulangeries. Coincidentally, her next novel – set in 17th-century Paris – also features a Seine flood.