Review by Geetha Kulkarni
Anyone who has been to Paris loves the city. But Paris did not always look the way it does today. In the 1800s Paris was overcrowded. It had narrow, poorly lighted streets, with open sewers which were the breeding ground for disease. Frequently these streets were closed because revolutionaries blocked the narrow roadways with barricades.
Several attempts had been made previously to rebuild the city but it was Napoleon III who finally took on the project. Napoleon had a great interest in modern technology, architecture and city planning. He became inspired to remake Paris into a modern city after seeing London which had been rebuilt in a massive project after the great fire in 1666. Napoleon was determined to remake Paris into a great modern capital worthy of the empire. He appointed Baron Haussmann Prefect of Paris. Baron Haussmann embarked on one of the largest urban transformations ever to be undertaken. The plan included the construction of wide boulevards, a symmetrical road system, a greatly expanded sewer system, gas lighting for the streets, construction of monuments, division of Paris into arrondisements, unifying facade for all the buildings in Paris, a train system that connected Paris to the rest of France. Haussmann brought symmetry to the city; the new roads were laid out in a grid. On the Isle de La Cite he demolished most of the private buildings, giving the island the religious character it has today. Several new buildings built in the classic style were built as part of these renovations e.g. the Opera House.
No part of Paris was untouched by this plan. The rebuilding took fifteen years. This grandiose plan necessitated the cutting through of old Paris with its narrow streets and medieval homes. Haussmann had been given extensive powers of expropriation. As one can imagine, many lives would have been touched by such a plan. Whereas some Parisians embraced the plan, took compensations and moved on, some objected to the changes in their city and to the demolishing of their family homes.
Rose Bazelet, in The House I Loved was among the second group. Rose’s husband has died and his family home is up for demolition. Rose is the last holdout; she refuses to give up her house and through a series of letters to her late husband, she reveals her story. This is a book whose theme I found interesting, the rebuilding of Paris and its impact on the individual. I have read other books where projects undertaken for the greater good, seriously impact ordinary individuals, The Winter Vault by Canadian author Anne Michaels comes to mind. It is an interesting theme; however I did not feel De Rosnay handled it well in her book. The plot is very narrow, focusing almost entirely on one character and one street in Paris. And that one character is not very attractive either, she is weak, passive and morose. There are only a couple of other characters in the book and their stories we do not hear. For example, there is Gilbert the rag picker who helps Madame Rose, but you never hear his story, how did he end up on the street? There is Alexandrine, the florist, what is her story? Why was she willing to sacrifice so much for Rose?
It was also hard to sympathize with Rose’s extreme love for the house, one in which she had a traumatic experience; hard to understand her preference for her son, born under unpleasant circumstances over her daughter.
This is a book that had promise because of the theme and its basis on the history of a much loved city but it did not live up to that promise. From the author of Sarah’s Key one expects more. The House I Loved is no Sarah’s Key.