Monday, March 5, 2018

Book Review: "Paris in the Present Tense" by Mark Helprin

I first encountered Mark Helprin when I read his beautiful, magical book, Winter's Tale, many years ago. It utterly transfixed me, and took me into a completely different world. I read a few of his other books over the years and they didn't quite move or touch me the same way, but I still marveled at his storytelling, as it's sometimes much harder to tell a story rooted in reality than in a fantasy world.

Helprin's latest book, Paris in the Present Tense, definitely drew me in from the very beginning. It has an old-fashioned feel, yet I mean that in the most complimentary way. It really reminded me of one of Ward Just or William Maxwell's books, full of rich character development, reflections on life and mortality, and the travails of the human heart.

"Music is the voice of God (when done properly)."

Jules Lacour is 74 years old. He is a cellist, a veteran, a Holocaust survivor, a father and grandfather, and a man who deeply misses his late wife. He has never pursued the path of financial comfort, but he has never regretted it more than when he learns that his two-year-old grandson is suffering from leukemia. He wishes he had the money to help pay for Luc's treatments. How he decides to obtain that money is one of the main threads of the story, and it carries quite a wallop!

This book is a fascinating study of emotion and mood, a look at a man who doesn't believe you should stop being outspoken because you grow older. Helprin explores how racism and anti-semitism are attitudes still carried by many people, in Paris and elsewhere in the world, despite the destruction they have wrought.

Don't worry that this is simply a brooding, heavy story, however; Jules is a fascinating, complex character—at times irascible and cranky, at times flirtatious and romantic. He is deeply philosophical and there is a great deal of discussion about the importance of music in his life, which is something I share. There are just so many facets to this man and his story that kept me reading, even when the pacing slowed down a little more than I would have hoped.

Paris in the Present Tense is full of dialogue you'll want to read over and over again to be sure you didn't miss a beat, evocative imagery, and an incredible sense of place—I felt Paris around me at times when reading it. I'm still not 100 percent sure if the entire book worked for me as a whole, but Helprin's storytelling made it a book to savor. Amazingly thought-provoking.

NetGalley and W.W. Norton & Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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