Synopses & Reviews
Paris. The name alone conjures images of chestnut-lined boulevards, sidewalk cafés, breathtaking façades around every corner in short, an exquisite romanticism that has captured the American imagination for as long as there have been Americans.
In 1995, Adam Gopnik, his wife, and their infant son left the familiar comforts and hassles of New York City for the urbane glamour of the City of Light. Gopnik is a longtime New Yorker writer, and the magazine has sent its writers to Paris for decades but his was above all a personal pilgrimage to the place that had for so long been the undisputed capital of everything cultural and beautiful. It was also the opportunity to raise a child who would know what it was to romp in the Luxembourg Gardens, to enjoy a croque monsieur in a Left Bank café a child (and perhaps a father, too) who would have a grasp of that Parisian sense of style we Americans find so elusive.
So, in the grand tradition of the American abroad, Gopnik walked the paths of the Tuileries, enjoyed philosophical discussions at his local bistro, wrote as violet twilight fell on the arrondissements. Of course, as readers of Gopnik's beloved and award-winning "Paris Journals" in The New Yorker know, there was also the matter of raising a child and carrying on with day-to-day, not-so-fabled life. Evenings with French intellectuals preceded middle-of-the-night baby feedings; afternoons were filled with trips to the Musée d'Orsay and pinball games; weekday leftovers were eaten while three-star chefs debated a "culinary crisis."
As Gopnik describes in this funny and tender book, the dual processes of navigating a foreign city and becoming a parent are not completely dissimilar journeys both hold new routines, new languages, a new set of rules by which everyday life is lived. With singular wit and insight, Gopnik weaves the magical with the mundane in a wholly delightful, often hilarious look at what it was to be an American family man in Paris at the end of the twentieth century. "We went to Paris for a sentimental reeducation I did anyway even though the sentiments we were instructed in were not the ones we were expecting to learn, which I believe is why they call it an education."
"The overarching theme of the book is France's ambivalent status in the world today and just how French self-attitude is different now from what it used to be in other words, the 'persistence of this civilization in the sideshow of postmodern culture.' Falling under Gopnik's critical eye are such specific topics as Islamic terrorism, labor relations, French versus American versions of the health club, and 'the French gift for social dramatization.'" Booklist
"The finest book on France in recent years." Alain de Botton, The New York Times Book Review
"Magisterial. A" Entertainment Weekly
"Although his subjects are broad global capitalism, American economic hegemony, and France's declining role in the world, [Gopnik] approaches each one via the tiny, personal details of his life as a married expatriate with a small child....Throughout, Gopnik is unabashedly sentimental about Paris, yet he never loses the objectivity of his outsider's eye. His 'macro in the micro' style sometimes seems a convenient excuse to write about himself, but elegantly woven together with the larger issues facing France, those personal observations beautifully convey a vision of Paris and its prideful, abstract-thinking, endlessly fascinating inhabitants. Although the core readership for this book will most likely be loyal New Yorker subscribers, its thoughtful, funny portrayal of French life give it broad appeal to Francophiles unfamiliar with Gopnik's work." Publishers Weekly
"Gopnick's essays do what the best writing should do: they inform as they entertain." Library Journal
"Adam Gopnik's avid intelligence and nimble pen found subjects to love in Paris and in the growth of his small American family there. A conscientious, scrupulously savvy American husband and father meets contemporary France, and fireworks result, lighting up not just the Eiffel Tower." John Updike
"Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon abounds in the sensuous delights of the city the magical carousel in the Luxembourg Gardens, the tomato dessert at Arpège, even the exquisite awfulness of the new state library. But the even greater joys of this exquisite memoir are timeless and even placeless the excitement of the journey, the confusion of an outsider, and, most of all, the love of a family." Jeffrey Toobin
"The chronicle of an American writer's lifelong infatuation with Paris is also an extended meditation--in turn hilarious and deeply moving — on the threat of globalization, the art of parenting, and the civilizing intimacy of family life. Whether he's writing about the singularity of the Papon trial, the glory of bistro cuisine, the wacky idiosyncrasies of French kindergartens, or the vexing bureaucracy of Parisian health clubs, Gopnik's insights are infused with a formidable cultural intelligence, and his prose is as pellucid as that of any essayist. A brilliant, exhilarating book." Francine du Plessix Gray
"Adam Gopnik is a dazzling talent — hilarious, winning, and deft — but the surprise of Paris to the Moon is its quiet, moral intelligence. This book begins as journalism and ends up as literature." Malcolm Gladwell
About the Author
Adam Gopnik has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986, and his work for the magazine has won the National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism as well as the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting. He broadcasts regularly for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and is the author of the article on the culture of the United States in the last two editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica. From 1995 to 2000, Gopnik lived in Paris, where the newspaper Le Monde praised his "witty and Voltairean picture of French life" and the weekly magazine Le Point wrote, "It is impossible to resist delighting in the nuances of his articles, for the details concerning French culture that one discovers even when one is French oneself." He now lives in New York with his wife, Martha Parker, and their two children, Luke and Olivia.
Reading Group Guide
1. Questions for Dis cussion
1. Throughout Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik seems to be writing about small things—Christmas lights, fax machines, childrens stories—but he tries to find in them larger truths about French and American life. Can the shape of big things be found by studying small ones? Is it really possible to “see the world in a grain of sand”? What overlooked small things in our American life seem to resonate with larger meanings?
2. Although composed of separate essays, the book follows a thread toward a larger meaning: that the “commonplace civilization” of Paris is beautiful but its official culture is often oppressive. What kinds of evidence, small and large, does Gopnik collect to illustrate this idea? In “Papons Paper Trail,” how does this lighthearted observation turn serious? In the chapters about the Balzar wars, how are the authors feelings finally resolved?
3. Can we find a similar distinction between “civilization” and “official culture” in America? Do you agree with the notion Gopnik alludes to in “Barney in Paris” that media culture is our official culture? Do you think his urge to “protect” his child from the “weather on CNN” in favor of the “civilization of the carousel” is admirable or foolish?
4. Although Paris to the Moon is not a novel, it has a novelistic shape, with characters we come to know. Are there “secret stories” in the book? Does Gopnik want us to sense something about the development of his feelings about his child? About his wife? Has the narrator changed or matured by the end? In what way are “all chords sounded” by the birth of a new child?
5. “The Rookie” is one of the most popular stories in the book. Why do you think this is so? The author seems to be saying that American life gives the “gift of loneliness”; do you agree? If you were away from home for a long time, what elements of American culture do you think you would miss?
6. Throughout the book, Gopnik compares France and America. What are the most frequent points of comparison? Where do you think he favors America, and where France? Which do you favor?
7. At the end of Paris to the Moon, when the family decides to return to America, Martha says, “In Paris we have a beautiful existence but not a full life, and in New York we have a full life but an unbeautiful existence.” The author has said that this distinction is central to his experience of being an expatriate. Do you think its a valid distinction? Given the choice, which would you prefer?
Books about Paris and France stretch out to the end of the horizon, and fill libraries. But the subcategory of books about Americans in Paris is smaller, and still choice. Of twentieth-century books, A. J. Lieblings Between Meals:AnAppetiteForParis is pure gold, as is his The Road Back to Paris. Janet Flanners Paris Journals are collections of her letters from Paris for The NewYorker, and are full of condensed, stylized French history.Henry Jamess A Little Tour in France is the classic literary guidebook, and James Thurbers wonderful stories of his mishaps in France are included in MyWorld andWelcome to It and in The Thurber Carnival, particularly the stories “A Ride with Olympy” and “Memoirs of a Drudge.” Ernest Hemingways A Moveable Feast is probably the most famous twentieth-century Paris memoir, though it is more aboutAmericans than about Paris.
Novels about Americans in Paris make up an even longer and richer list. They include Henry Jamess The American and The Ambassadors. Hemingways The Sun Also Rises is the classic story of American expatriates in Paris in the 1920s, and in Irwin Shaws Collected Stories there is many a glimpse of American expatriates in the 1950s. F. Scott Fitzgeralds “Babylon Revisited” is probably the saddest and most beautiful story about an American in Paris after the crash—and the fall.
Finally, George Gershwins great tone poem “An American in Paris,” which is heard often in the background of Paris to the Moon, has been recorded many times. The best version is Leonard Bernsteins 1959 recording, made with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra; it is available on CD. Gershwins piece was the basis for a not-bad Gene Kelly movie directed by Vincente Minnelli, widely available on video.