It’s Not Love, It’s Just Parisby Patricia Engel
“Astonishing . . . A love story that just won’t quit.” —Edwidge Danticat
“Astonishing . . . A love story that just won’t quit.” —Edwidge Danticat
Lita del Cielo has been granted one year to pursue her studies in Paris before returning to work in the family business. She moves into a gently crumbling Left Bank mansion known as the House of Stars, where the spirited but bedridden Countess Séraphine rents out rooms to young women visiting Paris to work, study, and, unofficially, to find love. It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris is a spellbinding love story, a portrait of a Paris caught between old world grandeur and the international greenblood elite, and an exploration of one woman’s journey to distinguish honesty from artifice and lay claim to her own life.
“Wise and accomplished . . . Beautifully written and executed . . . There are at least two ways to judge a novel: by how fast you turn the pages or by how many times you have to stop to underline a passage. My copy of It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris is all marked up. Engel, whose first book was the acclaimed story collection Vida, has uncanny insight into the human condition. Through Lita, she speaks a profound language of young love and desire . . . Engel’s considerable gifts are on display here.” —Benjamin Saenz, The New York Times Book Review
“As a coming-of-age novel, It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris might sound as if its theme is rather well-trod, but the title puts you on notice. This is no saccharine tale of awakening. Rather, it’s a clear-eyed recasting of a classic storyline executed with confidence and just enough city-of-lights magic by Miami author Patricia Engel to conjure up something that manages to be familiar and new. This is a novel to get lost in.” —Miami Herald
“Spare prose laced with nuggets of genuine wisdom…it is a testament to [Engel’s] large talent that the story culminates with an emotional force that is both surprising and deeply affecting.” —Thomas Chatterton Williams, San Francisco Chronicle
“Engel approaches her love affair without florid prose or salacious encounters. Instead, she installs her shy, serious protagonist, Lita del Cielo, in a Parisian boarding house . . . lets her slowly fall for the quiet son of an infamous politician, and pits her new life abroad against her old one at home in the U.S. It’s heady and cool approach brings real substance to the summer fling while making it an antidote to the usual seasonal fluff.” —Time Out New York (Summer Reads List)
“Remarkable, razor-sharp. . . . A compassionate read.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Like any word whose shimmer has dulled from overuse, Paris can seem like a cliché in itself. . . . But early on Patricia Engel shows that her writing can still be original. . . . [Engel’s] fresh language leads us right into the middle of yet another love story in Paris, and a star-crossed one to boot. But by the time you get there, you may already be hooked and feeling weepy for these two young lovers.” —The New York Times
“Has an appealing fairy tale quality . . . Engel has a knack for showing how Paris’s charms are both real and always verging on cliché.” —Publishers Weekly
“Engel’s novel is a post-American Dream tale.” —New York Daily News
“Absorbing . . . intimate in scope, erotic and, by the end, entirely unexpected . . . Engel she has an eye for detail. She knows how to drown the reader in a sense of enchantment . . . She writes exquisite moments . . . The power of this excellent novel is in how Engel holds us in her thrall as she complicates where Lita is going and what she will leave behind. The heart this story breaks, might be your own.” —Roxanne Gay, The Nation
“A post-American Dream tale.” —Jose Manuel Simian, New York Daily News
“Enticingly written.” —Library Journal
“‘We’ll always have Paris,’ lovers of this glorious city have been saying this to each other ever since Humphrey Bogart uttered those words in Casablanca. We rediscover a modern and eclectic Paris in Patricia Engel’s astonishing first novel, a story as grand and dazzling as its setting, yet as intimate and powerful as a love story that just won’t quit.” —Edwidge Danticat
“Has an appealing fairy tale quality . . . Engel has a knack for showing how Paris’s charms are both real and always verging on cliche.” —Publishers Weekly
“Unpredictable and touching . . . Warm, quirky and intelligently observed. A bonus is [Engel’s] wonderful evocation of Paris—if you haven’t been lucky enough to spend a year learning to love that glorious city (or if you have and want a vivid reminder), this bright and charming novel is the next best thing to a visit.” —Tampa Bay Times
“The number one reason you need to read this novel is to experience Engel’s writing. It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris is wry, melancholy, enchanting, seductive, and downright delectable. I savored every single page.” —BookRiot
“This story is not only for those who have been to Paris, but also for those who have ever felt like outcasts and hoped for a haven. The writing is honest, the characters real, and the ending not-so-predictable. For anyone who has ever been to Paris or has ever suffered in love, It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris is about finding a home away from home, finding yourself, and finding amongst all the distractions of obligation where your true passions reside.” —The Thursday Review
“Lots of readers have wanted to know what Engel would write after her arresting debut, Vida, a PEN/Hemingway finalist. And here it is, an enticingly written work.” —Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
The first person to call it the House of Stars was Séraphine’s husband, Théophile, a drunk who often passed out in the entrance court before making it to the front door. He’d say that, from his cheek-to-the-cobblestone view, all he saw were faint lights, like stars, in the bedroom windows, and no matter the hour there were always stars out on our stretch of rue du Bac, which is also how Séraphine’s place got a reputation among others for being a house that never sleeps.
I’d just met her when she told me Théo carried on an affair with her sister, Charlotte, the whole time they were married, but he’d chosen Séraphine for his wife because she was the one who inherited the de la Roque fortune. Everyone knew about Th”o and Charlotte’s romance, but back then people were more strategic in their marrying.
“It was the fashion,” Séraphine said, and believe me, a lot of things you’d never expect were the fashion.
Soon after my arrival, I asked what happened to Théophile because I hadn’t yet met him but always saw his hat resting on the chest in the front foyer as if he were lost somewhere in the house. Séraphine rearranged herself among her bed pillows and lit a cigarette before sighing, “My Théo suicided himself seventeen years ago. The writer who lived across the way had done the same a month before. It was the fashion.”
Séraphine was a countess. Around the house, and even around Paris, people still kept track of that stuff even though titles went out with the Revolution. I was told by the guy who recommended me as a tenant that I should address her as Madame la Comtesse or just plain Countess if I planned on sticking to English, but I couldn’t utter either without feeling I was part of a performance. So, within hours of my arrival I asked if I could call her by her first name instead. Her kohl-lined eyes expanded to reveal their inner pink membranes and she took a while to respond. I was thinking this sort of friendliness might have been a grave mistake and wondered if there was a way to reverse it when Séraphine finally cleared her throat and smiled with what, using her frown lines as evidence, I took to be her first in years.
“Very well, Leticia. You may call me Séraphine. If you insist.”
Soon all the girls started calling her Séraphine, too, even those who’d been residents for years already and had always addressed her formally. Her grandson Loic tried to rectify my disgrace, saying it was rude of us to be so familiar and we should at least address her as Madame since we were all guests in Séraphine’s house, which wasn’t really true given that we paid good money to live there, in American dollars no less—a year’s rent in full, up front. But it was too late; the order of the house had already shifted.
Princess Diana had died while I was on the night flight from Newark to Paris. The taxi driver tossed Le Figaro with the headline and picture of the tunnel crash across my lap and drove me from Charles de Gaulle over to the Seventh. I remembered watching her wedding on television with my mother when I was a kid and it didn’t feel like so long ago, but now that was just a story people would tell, and instead of happily ever after, it would be And the princess and her lover died together in Paris. The End. The news of her death made me feel old and brought on a sharp longing for my mother, who’d turned her back from me at the airport so I wouldn’t see the shine of her tears. The taxi driver let me keep the newspaper. He’d bought multiple copies, he said, figuring they’d be worth something because it’s not every day a princess dies. I tucked it into the back of my jeans and dragged my two suitcases off the sidewalk, across the courtyard to the countess’s house, and into the foyer. Nobody turned up when I rang the bell.
Like Séraphine, the House of Stars must have been very beautiful once. You could see the allure and majesty under the costume of Persian rugs, marble floors, molded ceilings, enormous chandeliers, and gilded mirrors. But if you looked closer you’d see the rugs were darkened with age, spotted with cigarette stains, worn with high-heel holes. The marble floor, chipped and decades overdue for a polishing. The moldings, cracked with cherubs missing heads or wings, the mirrors fogged over, their frames tarnished, the chandeliers missing crystals and bulbs. Then there were the decorative details: wooden furniture with mother-of-pearl and enamel inlays that were Louis something or other, chests and tiny tables holding figurines, and miniature silver boxes—the sort of stuff you’d see at any garage sale back home. And that bouquet of old tobacco, lingering despite all those little glass bowls of lavender potpourri.
A voice called and I followed it down the short hall off the foyer.
And then I saw her: Séraphine, propped up by a mound of white cushions in a large mahogany sleigh bed floating at the center of the room over a floor layered with carpets. Lace curtains shrouded glass doors that opened onto the back garden. She was dressed in a white bed gown, her legs covered by an airy duvet, looking porcelain with what was left of her long, colorless hair swiped into a tight bun. Pearls drooped off her ears, her thin lips were covered in a runny red pigment, and her light eyes were lined with a dark gunk that was her trademark and probably the reason for her cataracts. Even in bed, fat like a panda, she was an elegant sort of lady, just like the younger Séraphine staring back at her from the framed photographs lining the yellowed walls, and I often wondered what her husband didn’t see in her.
By then, Séraphine was almost ninety and hadn’t left her room in three years; a vestige that came with the house. The maids called her the maharani because doctors, friends, and the bits of the world that mattered to Séraphine came to her when summoned. They said she would have to be bulldozed out if any of her descendants were to have their way and try to sell the house, as I soon learned her own daughter was hoping to do.
When I asked Séraphine why she decided to rent out rooms in her house, she explained that before it was the House of Stars it was the House of Felines. Th”o, who was the obsessive type, had collected his way up to fifty or so of some rare breed of Siamese, and each room, which now boarded a girl, once housed five or six cats, plus a few favorites who had free reign of the estate. Th”o treated the cats like curios and spent his days visiting each of them, brushing them and clipping their nails, whispering in Russian because Th”o was Russian in his former life, rumored to be Jewish, though it was never mentioned, because the de la Roque family wanted people to think they were thoroughly French and Catholic, throwing around that old proverb that a good name is worth more than a golden belt. The maids said that was also the reason Séraphine never took Théo’s giveaway of a last name and why he was so taken with the writer across the street who was also Russian and Jewish in some capacity.
One day Séraphine got fed up with the cats. She said she couldn’t do anything about Théophile sleeping with her sister like it was his God-given right, but she could evict the cats because it was her house, inherited from her father who favored her as his firstborn. She’d wanted to pack up the cats and send them to live with the prostitutes and bums in the Bois de Boulogne, but those cats were each worth a small bundle, so she found herself a cat broker and sold him the lot for a lump sum. He came to collect them with a van full of cages one evening while Théo was out drinking. When he sobered up the next day and saw the cats were gone, Théo had a breakdown and Séraphine was certain he never really forgave her. It was Théophile’s idea to fill the rooms with girls now that the cats were gone. They started out with two, then three, and worked their way up to eight. She said Théo found keeping young girls just as amusing as keeping cats. The maids murmured that for all their blue blood and this property, one of the few remaining hôtels particuliers on the Left Bank, the de la Roque family was broke. The countess discovered an easy income in housing allegedly well-bred debutante borders and plenty of parents eager to pay a onetime noblewoman to supervise their daughters en s’jour.
I was the only new girl that season. There was a long waiting list to live in the house, and a girl was considered only if personally recommended as I was by a former Nouveau Roman professor who was tenuously related to Théophile. Each girl was given her own private room on the second and third floors while Séraphine lived downstairs. Her grandsons, Loic and Gaspard, the sons of her only daughter, Nicole, had an apartment in the smaller west wing of the house, accessed through a separate entrance or through a narrow hideaway passage under the stairs leftover from the war. Séraphine assigned me to the bedroom above hers at the top of the staircase on the second level, a tunnel-like space with a set of double doors opening onto the corridor and a pair of glass panels on the opposite wall leading to a small balcony overlooking the terrace and back garden. Within it, a single bed with a limp mattress pushed into a corner, a small desk, a folding chair, a black lacquer dresser missing a few glass knobs, and a red velvet love seat with sunken cushions and splitting wooden legs.
Even though there were three maids, Violeta, Flora, and Mara, Portuguese sisters whose mother was the rarely seen concierge living in a little apartment just inside the entrance court, and Loic and Gaspard were supposed to be the house managers, I’d arrived when everybody was taking their lunch. Thus no one came along to help drag my bags upstairs or to show me where things were, like the kitchen or the common phone, which only received incoming calls, or to tell me the toilet was on one end of the hall while the tiled washroom with a curtainless bath, handheld shower, and sink were down the other end.
I’d opened the balcony doors to clear out the stale air and was kneeling on my bedroom floor, pulling clothes from a suitcase, when I noticed twin pairs of sandals in the doorway belonging to two girls staring down at me as if I were a raccoon rummaging through a trash pile. I don’t have sisters, just two brothers—one older and one younger—I hadn’t had many girlfriends at school and felt like I knew my way around books better than people. I was twenty years old, graduated from a top university with honors, two years ahead of schedule in life, but still a social novice. And these girls, Tarentina and Giada, as they introduced themselves, came off as a fearsome twosome, their dirty blonde hair in tangled bobs, black bras peeking from the tops of their nearly identical knee-grazing floral dresses and similar firm round breasts that Loic later told me they’d purchased together during last year’s Easter holiday in Tarentina’s hometown of Rio–it was the fashion.
Giada, slightly shorter, leaned on the door frame, her lips in a permanent pout, while her friend asked who I was and where I came from with a quasi-British twang I’d learn was standard among the Swiss boarding-school set. I told them my name was Leticia but I went by Lita and I was American. By their faces I could tell they did not believe me.
“What are your last names?” Tarentina asked.
“Del Cielo. It’s the only one I’ve got.”
She smiled, though not warmly.
“That sounds like a stage name. What’s your blood?”
“Your lineage,” she sighed, already bored with me. “Your country. You know, what are you made of?”
“Indian, I presume.” She turned to Giada. “That explains the jungle face.”
In fact I was named for a jungle city in the Amazon on the shared frontiers of Colombia, Brazil, and Peru. I didn’t come out of the jungle, but my mother did, found abandoned on a road and turned over to some nuns who took her back to the capital. Back then, indigenous babies were nearly unadoptable, and instead of turning her over to an orphanage, the nuns raised my mother in the convent. I didn’t feel like explaining any of that, so all I said was, “I guess it does.”
“Well, Loic asked me to tell you he’s on his way. He usually does the welcoming. We’ll chat more once you settle in.”
They departed with a “Ciao Ciao,” their sandals flapping down the stairs over their soft laughter, until they were out the front door. Dread spread over me. I’d hoped to live on my own in Paris, scouring classifieds in a secondhand FUSAC, circling affordable studio apartment listings, but my father had insisted he’d only let me live abroad if I had company, a respectable witness to my existence. The House of Stars was the compromise I now began to regret.
A short while later, Loic, gangly in his gingham shirt, pressed trousers, and prematurely wrinkled face, tapped on my door and introduced himself.
“So sorry not to have been here when you arrived. I had an emergency of sorts. Well, a friend had an emergency.”
I stood up to greet him, shaking his bony hand.
“Have you had a look around the house yet?”
“Yes. It’s nice. I met your grandmother and some of the other girls. Giada and—”
He stared at me, his eyes a watery blue.
“The first day is always the hardest.”
I forced a smile.
“I’m just tired. From the travel. The time change.”
“Why don’t you take a break from your unpacking and join me outside for some fresh air.” He held out his hand as if luring me off a ledge.
Loic’s idea of fresh air was a cigarette. We sat on the front steps of the house, his knobby knee gliding against the blue jeans I’d pulled on the day before back in New Jersey as my father shouted from downstairs that if I didn’t hurry, I’d miss my flight. Loic offered me a Lucky Strike from his pack. I wasn’t a smoker but I’d smoked plenty with Ajax, my childhood best friend, who was a real fiend, especially when he was coming off drugs. I might never have come to Paris if not for Ajax, whose real name was Andrew Jackson, just like the president. We were early nerds together, thrown together in the exile of the “gifted” classes and Saturday enrichment programs at the local college. He was traumatized into being an achiever since he found out that his father, whom he’d thought was dead, was actually a dentist with another family across town and Ajax’s mother had been his receptionist. We went to the same school as his half siblings, and Ajax decided to excel in class to make them look like the losers.
Ajax and his mother lived in a tiny apartment above the liquor store, and my family lived in a professionally decorated mansion, but he still thought we were minority trash because his mother raised him on the myth that they were the long-lost cousins of the Kennedys. His mother left him alone a lot, and afternoons, when we were meant to be studying at the library, we’d hide out in his room watching Bones Brigade videos and planning our destiny as supercool adults. Neither of us really fit into our whitewashed town of monograms and country club memberships, but I didn’t mind much because Ajax always said community is just conformity with a rose behind its ear.
Ajax got me into skateboarding and one day took my dare to try a hand plant in our drained swimming pool and broke his back, which took him out of ninth grade for four months. When they weaned him off the painkillers, Ajax, who now walked like an old man, made friends with the liquor store gang outside his door and landed on heroin. He was currently in jail for trying to kill his mother. I’d never visited him but I once sent him a box of books he’d lent me over the years. Most of them were stolen from the library or local bookstore anyway. They were sexy books. Books about Europe and elsewhere, people living uncharted lives–the kind of people we both wanted to be after high school. Then, Ajax said, we’d really start living. But the box of books was returned to me, so I took it to his apartment hoping to leave it with his mother, but she had moved, and when I asked down at the liquor store, nobody knew where she’d gone.
Maybe it was the rotated yellowing teeth, the hollow cheeks, stork-thin arms, or the way Loic held his cigarette between his middle and ring finger, but my memories of Ajax built an instant bridge of familiarity between us. Maybe it was his eyes, pale and beckoning. Maybe it’s just that lonely attracts lonely.
Loic was the kind of guy who’d drive down Avenue Foch in his Mini and pick up a young hooker only to give her free money and offer to help her find a decent job somewhere. He really did that, about once a week, but I was the only one who knew, because I’ve always been the sort of person people find it easy to tell their secrets to. The truth is I’m very quiet out loud, shy like an escargot, saving my chatter for the privacy of my own mind, and I’m only talky like this when I’m still trying to understand what things mean to me.
I took the cigarette Loic offered me that afternoon thinking it was a good way to christen this new life. Loic didn’t say much, not even when I broke into a coughing fit after my first drag. He looked over his sharp shoulder and, through his smoky smile, as if he could read my weariness and fears, said, ‘don’t worry, Lita. You’re going to be very happy here. I promise.”
My father says you can’t go anywhere without leaving something behind. It sounds better in Spanish–less simple, although my father is a simple man. He’s a tycoon now but he was illiterate until he was nineteen and says poverty can’t be covered by a new suit, which also sounds much better in Spanish, but you get the picture.
My mother, as I said, was found in the jungle. She could be Brazilian or Peruvian just as easily as Colombian since most national lines drawn through the rainforest are only observed by maps. She might be mestiza or pure Indian, though we don’t know her tribe—Bora, Yagua, or Ticuna—it’s hard to say, since being dropped in the city was her first displacement. She’s got thick black hair strong enough to strangle someone, which I inherited along with her straight brows and long eyes that stretch to my ears. Alligator eyes are what my brothers call them, because they got our father’s eyes, small and round like coffee beans, and his condor nose. My older brother, Santi, would say that unless you hang with Lévi-Strauss, chances are we don’t look like anyone you know. We’re sand colored, tall and lean with angular butts. My father says it’s from generations of hunger and malnutrition that came before us, but that can’t be verified, because, like my mother, Papi was also abandoned. When he was six or seven his father packed him with a bundle of arepas and left him alone in a Bogotá park. It was sunset before he realized his father wasn’t coming back for him. He went to the safest place he could think of to wait out the night, a church, and spent the next five years sleeping on its steps among the derelicts and street kids until he observed a man who came for daily Mass and, figuring the guy must be halfway decent, one day followed him home. Papi doesn’t like to get into details, but sleeping on the church steps was pretty dangerous and he got all the propositions you’d imagine a twelve-year-old homeless boy would get.
The man my father followed turned out to be an ironworker, and he agreed to let Papi work for him in exchange for food and a place to sleep. Eight years later, the man, Santiago, sent Papi to repair the fence around a convent on the city periphery. That’s where he met my mother—an eighteen-year-old nun in training. It sounds kind of telenovela escandaloso, but they fell in love and my mother became pregnant. She didn’t have the nerve to tell the nuns, so she just ran away with my father, whose name is Beto, leaving a note for the nuns confessing everything. He had a dream to get them both to the United States, where he heard poor people had more of a chance. It took them a while to find a way out of the country, but a rich guy whose window bars he installed had prize Doberman puppies that needed escorts for their emigration to New York. My father begged for the job. The rich guy had friends in high places who could take care of the passports, but neither of my parents had last names, so my father went back to the church where he’d spent his urchin years and a young priest agreed to marry him and my mother and sign a document vouching for their existence. That’s when my parents picked out their own last name: del Cielo, because they figured the only father they had now was God.
The only sad part is that their baby was born dead. They called her Eden. Years later, my parents took us back to Colombia to visit the nuns and show them their young family. Mami had been writing them for years, first about her new life in Los Estados and the three children that were born there. We went out to the convent garden where my parents met and had an improvised funeral for Eden. I was only five and didn’t realize what was going on until the Mother Superior put a thin gold chain around my neck that she said had been meant for Eden, who was now my spirit sister. I wore it until it broke off a few years ago and my mother placed it in a special rosewood box beside her bed, next to her altar of favorite saints.
I can tell you all about the Great American Crossover because my parents never shut up about the early days. How they made it to JFK Airport, delivered the puppies, and Papi called a Jackson Heights connection provided by Santiago who found him a job sweeping in a warehouse, and one for Mami cleaning bathrooms at an elementary school. She’d been teaching my father to read Spanish, but now they had to start from nothing and learn English together. You’d never know it, because my father hardly has an accent now. Of course it wasn’t always this way. As Papi says, all of us are living many lives at once.
My father also says that every person gets a vision once in their life that holds the key to their future. I know it sounds like Disney talk but he swears by it and says that after a year as a Queens janitor he dreamed about the day his father left him at the park, saw his weathered crying face, and heard him sob, “Perdoname, hijo, perdoname,” because his father had six other kids and was ashamed he couldn’t afford to feed them all. He handed Papi the pack of arepas saying, “This will help you fight the hunger for a while.”
Papi shook my mother awake.
“Caridad, we’re going to start an arepa factory!”
It sounds funny now. And when business magazines do articles on my father because he’s now known as the King of Latin Foods, they always get a kick out of that anecdote. But it’s true. Papi says arepas, just white corn flour, peasant food, are the heart of any Colombian diet. So my mother started making them and my father started selling them on the streets of Queens during the daylight hours, working the nightshift sweeping. A year later he had enough cash to open a kiosk, and a few years after that, when Papi’s English was good enough, he managed to convince a young banker to give him a loan. With it, they opened their first bakery and then the first factory, which eventually grew to national and now global distribution of all the cornerstones of Latin American household cuisine.
And my mother? They don’t call her Our Lady of New Jersey for nothing. Since she and my father had it so rough when they landed in the United States, my mother was determined to help out as many new arrivals as she could and word got around. When someone arrived, they called her or just showed up at our door and my mother would bring them in, give them clothes, groceries, listen to their stories, and set them up with a job. Mami had built an intricate network of those she’d helped over the years who now had their own businesses. She was a one-woman embassy, getting the new arrivals to doctors who treated at a discount, lawyers willing to help with their papers, tutoring their children so they wouldn’t get railroaded into the slow classes in school. She was godmother to about thirty kids already and the namesake of a dozen others. She drove an old baby blue Mercedes and still wore her fat whip of a braid down to her waist, never a drop of makeup, and the same mochila she carried with her on that flight with the dogs out of Colombia.
My father says he only moved us out to a fancy New Jersey suburb because he had a dream of owning acres, a house with many rooms so nobody he knew would ever be left without a place to sleep, and this was the closest thing my parents had known to paradise. There were always extra plates at the dinner table—water added to the soup, is what Mami would say—always a bed freshly made, waiting for the next guest, be it for a night, a week, or a month. On Sundays after church, our house was Grand Central Station for Tristate Colombians, people passing through to say hello, celebrating successes or quietly relaying bad news, dropping off pasteles, buñuelitos, chicharrónes, and albóndingas, any little gesture of gratitude for my parents.
I thought this was how all families operated until Ajax started coming over and mocked our clan, saying, “When immigrants get money they turn their mansions into refugee camps.”
But my older brother, Santi, explained to me that Ajax probably acquired that line at home and the only thing people resent more than poor immigrants are wealthy ones:
“Remember, hermanita, the Brown American Dream is the White American Nightmare.”
I never thought much of any of this until I moved into Séraphine’s house. There, it was as if everyone carried their family history in their pocket, bragging about bloodlines, waving the family crest rings on their fingers. The paperwork to live in the House of Stars was more detailed than a college application, asking for the names and nationalities of grandparents and great-grandparents. I didn’t have anything to put in those spaces. Séraphine had been forced to grow lenient over the years, though. She said there were hardly any real blue bloods anymore; immigration, Communism, dictatorships, and little countries gaining independence did away with nobility and name privilege. Now, in the era of “le Self-Made,” a sort of charlatanism in her view, she lamented that any nobody off the street could come into the opportunities, money, and property that used to be afforded to the few of a certain birthright. According to Séraphine, all of us girls residing in the House of Stars were part of the fresh and hungry newly moneyed international breed that was turning France into a resigned colony of our pleasures. We were the greenbloods, full of equity, pedigree unknown.
1. Set against the enchanting backdrop of Paris, this novel charts Lita’s del Cielo’s growing independence, her love affair, and her search for self-discovery. How does this City of Light, of romance, play a role in her journey, affecting and shaping her life and the lives of the people around her? How far would it be accurate to depict the city as a character in the novel? How important is the setting to the novel?
2. Within hours of Lita’s arrival at the House of Stars, she was calling Madame la Comtesse by her first name only and “the order of the house had already shifted” (p. 4). What is it that Lita brings to the house and the group of girls who live there? How is she different from the others, and what effect does her presence have on the others? On Séraphine?
3. Séraphine de la Roque holds sway over life in the house—immaculately dressed yet bedridden, a voice from years past living vicariously through her “girls” and remembering her Parisian glory years. Why is Lita drawn to Séraphine? To what extent does Séraphine represent a different world in which pedigree was everything? What are her thoughts on the changing ways of the world? Talk about some of the ways in which Séraphine’s life story parallels Lita’s.
4. In many ways, this is a novel about belonging. As Lita states, “No one is born with the feeling of not belonging. It’s thrust upon us” (p. 164). Find instances of the ways in which Lita feels like an outsider in her life in the U.S. and in Paris, and discuss how she has been shaped by this. How does the theme of family fit into this?
5. Given the fact that she so often feels other, what is it that draws Lita immediately to Cato? Why does she feel so at home with him? And he, likewise, with her? What is their connection?
6. Discuss the ways in which Lita’s feelings about being different contribute to her role as narrator. Does she bear judgment on the worlds she inhabits or the people she meets—the denizens of the House of Stars, Cato’s father, her family—or does she bear witness?
7. Self-described as “very quiet out loud, shy like an escargot, saving my chatter for the privacy of my own mind” (p. 12). Lita observes the worlds around her. How does she grow as a character as the novel progresses and she immerses herself more fully in her Paris world? Does she ever feel fully at home there?
8. Continue your discussion to reflect on the importance of home in the novel. What does home mean to the different characters? Consider Lita’s father’s “silent quandary . . . his wondering why I insisted on elsewhere, why home wasn’t enough” (p. 38). What does Santi mean when he states “We are your home” (p. 191)? What about Séraphine’s impassioned plea: “I will remain here in my house because it is my right and it is what I desire, until my last breath” (p. 219)?
9. One of the special achievements of this novel lies in its ability to create a universal picture of Paris—of young women spending time in this city looking for and finding romance—and yet to give Lita’s experience significance. Talk about the ways in which you found Lita’s Paris life familiar or run-of-the-mill, and the ways in which her love affair was transported to another more meaningful level. How does the author accomplish this?
10. Discuss the girls of the rue du Bac. To what degree can they be viewed en masse as representatives of the “greenbloods progeny” out to have a good time in Paris in the name of education and culture? How far do they understand that their stories have been played out so many times before? Do they seek authenticity at all? Do any of the girls surprise you as the narrative progresses?
11. Lita and her old friend Ajax used to read books “about Europe and elsewhere, people living uncharted lives–the kind of people we both wanted to be after high school” (p. 12). What do you think she meant by this? Do you think that the older, twenty-year-old Lita says this ironically?
12. What does Lita’s Papi mean when he says “all of us are living many lives at once” (p. 15)? What are the lives that Lita is living in Paris? Does she view herself as a sum of all her parts, or as someone who is constantly evolving and seeking an authentic self? Is it possible to become a different person? How is Lita’s Paris experience different from Naomi’s?
13. The theme of abandonment is of great importance in the novel—parents abandoning children and children abandoning parents. Find instances of such loss and discuss how different characters are affected by it. Should abandonment always be viewed as a negative?
14. Consider Tarentina’s teasing that when Lita speaks of her family, “it sounded more like I was speaking of a cult than of a family” (p. 236). How real is the freedom that Lita imagines when she contemplates “what it would be like to not be accountable to anyone else” (p. 236)?
15. “We can’t choose our fathers just like we can’t choose our children” (p. 102). In the light of this seemingly simple statement made by Cato—and repeated by Lita to Séraphine—discuss the never-ending cycle of action and reaction that passes down through generations from parent to child, creating and shaping personalities. How has Cato been affected by his father’s political stance? Lita by her parents? Is love—an act of choice—a reprieve from this cycle?
16. Romain, a waiter at the local restaurant, has left his tightly knit family behind in Corsica to pursue–one day–his dreams of acting. How far does his experience parallel Lita’s? Why is he able to escape his destiny of working in the family business? Is it braver to give up ones dreams for family or to give up ones family for a dream?
17. “You girls are all the same. . . . You say you came to Paris to become educated and cultured. You say you want to be women of the world but all you really want is a boyfriend” (p. 143). Lita hears these words or variations of them on several occasions. How accurate do you think they are in her case? For the other young women at the House of Stars? What is it that sets her apart from the others, if anything?
18. “It was as if my blood had been moving slowly through me for years, and with Cato my pulse had been altered, changing course” (p. 103). Chart the progress of Lita and Cato’s love affair and discuss the ways in which it seems predestined or perhaps mythic. Compare it to the romances of the other girls.
19. The power of love runs deep throughout the novel, throughout the lives of the characters. Discuss the fairytale romance of Lita’s parents, their immediate knowledge that they were meant for each other. How does it compare to Lita and Cato’s feelings for each other?
20. In the light of the last question, consider Lita’s father’s statement that “You don’t ‘find’ love, mi amor. You choose it. And then to keep love, you must choose it again, day after day” (p. 162). How does this compare with our inability to choose our family members? How fair would it be to say that Lita’s parents had the freedom to choose each other, whereas Lita is not free—she must choose between love and family?
21. Discuss the reasons that Cato may have had for hiding his illness from Lita. Why does he not tell her that he is likely to die young? How do you think this would have changed the trajectory of their love affair?
22. In an argument with her brother Santi, an exasperated Lita exclaims, “I just want to know, when exactly does my life belong to me?” (p. 159). Is there ever the possibility in the novel that Lita might stay in Paris with Cato, or did you guess that their love affair was doomed from the beginning, destined to finish within the time slot allocated by Lita’s parents?
23. Talk about the novel’s ending. How did you feel about Lita’s leaving Paris? How realistic were her reasons for not returning to France and to Cato? Did they make you question the depth and importance of her love for Cato? Had it really been a Paris romance just like every other short-lived Paris affair? Lita refers to herself as “a coward; gutless, pusillanimous” (p. 251) for rationalizing that their love was over—how far do you agree with her?
24. “In the end we all become closer to who we started out as in life than who we set out to be. The best thing one can do is accept the life that was claimed for you the second you were born. Dreaming is for children” (p. 199). How far does Séraphine’s statement reflect Lita’s journey? Is this ultimately a pessimistic worldview or just pragmatic?
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING:
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz; Lessons in French by Hilary Reyl; The Fault in Our Stars by John Green; Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery; The Paris Wife by Paula McLain; Martin Eden by Jack Londo; Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter; Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner; The Pleasing Hour by Lily King; Vida by Patricia Engel