Synopses & Reviews
When Willie Pears begins teaching at a center for immigrant girls who are all hoping for French asylum, she has no idea it will change her life. As she learns their stories, the lines between teaching and mothering quickly begin to blur. Willie has fled to Paris to create a new family for herself by reaching out to her beloved brother, Luke, and her straight-talking friend, Sara. She soon falls for Macon, a charming, passionate French lawyer, and her new family circle seems complete. But Gita, a young girl at the detention center, is determined to escape her circumstances, no matter the cost. And just as Willie is faced with a decision that could have potentially dire consequences for both her relationship with Macon and the future of the center, Luke is taken with a serious, as-yet-unnamed illness, forcing Willie to reconcile with her father and examine the lengths we will go to for the people we care the most about.
In Paris Was the Place, Conley has given us a beautiful portrait of on how much it matters to belong: to a family, to a country, to any one place, and how this belonging can mean the difference in our survival. This is a profoundly moving portrait of some of the most complicated and glorious aspects of the human existence: love and sex and parenthood and the extraordinary bonds of brothers and sisters. It is a story that reaffirms the ties that bind us to one another.
"Paris is the place where Willow 'Willie' Pears can finally live near her brother Luke, who's moved there with his boyfriend after years in China. She'll teach poetry, try to get over her mother's death, and, as the story begins, volunteer at a political asylum center, helping teenage girls practice their English while they wait for their court dates. That's where she meets attorney Macon Ventri. Willie, as she tells us, has an 'eager face' that makes her 'hard to deny.' The same could be said of the book; it's tenderhearted, earnest, and sincere in ways that make it hard to deny, even when Willie gets over-involved with Gita, one of the asylum seekers, and is surprised at the trouble she causes; or when it takes Willie and the other characters much too long to diagnose Luke's persistent cough and exhaustion. As Conley (The Foremost Good Fortune) draws her, Willie may be a bit precious, but she's also a true believer not only in poetry but in love and the heart of the book is the interlocking love stories, between Willie and the almost-to-good-to-be-true Macon, as well as between sister and brother, daughter and mother, and Willie and her asylum-seeking student. Agent: Stephanie Cabot, Gernert Company." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
“A satisfying cassoulet of questions about home, comfort and love, served with a fresh perspective on a dazzling city.” People
“Conley writes beautifully, compellingly [and] with a directness and clarity that is moving without being maudlin....[She] also evokes a vivid sense of Paris....Captivating descriptions highlight the hallmarks and quirks of the various arrondissements and neighborhoods with a ‘you are here’ immediacy.” The Boston Globe
“The author of the acclaimed memoir The Foremost Good Fortune has written an exquisite debut novel. American Willow Pears lives and teaches in Paris at a center for immigrant girls who have requested asylum in France. The culture, flavor, keen detail, and literature of Paris, India, and the US are lyrically interwoven in a story about hope, love, family, forgiveness, expectation, risk, loss, and letting go.” The Boston Globe
“Deftly exploring the complexities of friendship, family, and commitment, Conley adroitly demonstrates her infectious passion for Paris through an extensive and intimate portrait of the inner workings concealed behind its seductive façade.” Booklist
“An affecting debut….The sympathetic storytelling and limpid first-person narration succeed in casting a spell.” Kirkus
From acclaimed author Susan Conley, a novel that gives us a luminous emotional portrait of a young woman living abroad in Paris in the 1980s and trying to make sense of the chaotic world around her as she learns the true meaning of family.
When Willie Pears agrees to teach at a Parisian center for immigrant girls who have requested French asylum, she has no idea it will utterly change her life. She has lived in Paris for six months, surrounded by the most important people in her life: her beloved brother, Luke, her funny and wise college roommate, Sara, and Sara's do-gooder husband, Rajiv. And now there is Macon Ventri, a passionate, dedicated attorney for the detained girls. Theirs is a meeting of both hearts and minds — but not without its problems. As Willie becomes more involved with the immigrant girls who touch her soul, the lines between teaching and mothering are blurred. She is especially drawn to Gita, a young Indian girl who is determined to be free. Ultimately Willie will make a decision with potentially dire consequences to both her relationship with Macon and the future of the center. Meanwhile, Luke is taken with a serious, as-yet-unnamed illness, and Willie will come to understand the power of unconditional love while facing the dark days of his death. Conley has written a piercing, deeply humane novel that explores the connections between family and friends and reaffirms the strength of the ties that bind.
About the Author
Susan Conley is the author of The Foremost Good Fortune, a book that won the Maine Literary Award for memoir and was a Goodreads Choice Award finalist. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She's been awarded fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Massachusetts Arts Council. She teaches at the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast MFA writing program, and is the cofounder of The Telling Room, a creative-writing lab in Portland, Maine, where she lives with her husband and their two sons.
Reading Group Guide
1. The epigraph, from Gertrude Stein, includes the title phrase: “And so when hats in Paris are lovely and french and everywhere/then France is alright. So Paris was the place that suited us . . .” What does it mean? Why do you think Conley chose it?
2. What is Willie looking for in Paris? Does she find it?
3. Each chapter title is the definition of a word or phrase. How does Conley use this device to direct the reader’s attention?
4. On page 28, Willie teaches the girls about Sarjoni and the notion of the “high dream,” the things that matter most. What is Willie’s high dream?
5. Why was Willie’s relationship with her father so strained? What are her feelings about her unconventional mother? How do these affect her relationships with Macon and Luke?
6. “Mothering often feels like the first cousin of teaching,” Willie says on page 52. How does this play out in the novel? In what places does Willie lose sight of the distinction between the two?
7. Why does Willie feel such an affinity for Gita? Why does she decide to help her? Is the risk Willie takes in doing so worth it?
8. In some ways, the character Macon seems too good to be true, but there is more to him than meets the eye. In what ways is Macon not facing the truth about his personal life? Is he a good father? Would he make a good husband for Willie? How realistic is he about the fate of the girls in his trust? How does his own family’s history as refugees inform his work?
9. On page 154, Willie teaches her American students a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, which ends with the phrase, “You must change your life.” Willie finds this especially powerful—why?
10. The power of poetry is a theme in the novel—on page 172 a poet tells Willie, “‘I wouldn’t be a poet unless I had some hope.’” What point is Conley trying to make?
Several characters in the novel—Gaird and Willie’s parents—leave and then choose to return. Contrast this with the girls at the asylum center, many of whom are forced to return to their home countries. How do the situations relate?
11. When Willie and Macon go to India, what do we learn from the incident on the bus? (p. 283) How does that trip change Willie?
12. On page 313, Macon says to Willie about his son, “Family is a very malleable thing for a five-year-old. I think it’s really about who he trusts. Who is safe. Who he can tell really loves him.” How is this similar to Willie’s idea of family?
13. When Luke is dying, Willie believes that she doesn’t have a childhood without him—that her childhood becomes a lie with his death. (p.337) What does she mean by that? Is she right?
14. Conley sets the novel in 1989, a time when the world was only just becoming aware of the devastation of AIDS. How does the uncertainty surrounding the disease affect the way that Luke’s loved ones (Willie, his father, Gaird) cope with his illness? What about Luke himself?
15. The last paragraphs of the novel focus on the ideas of hope and courage. Are they the twin themes of the entire story?