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New Books Network Interview: Ruth Reichl

An abstract drawing of a woman in an off-shoulder dress, seated at a table holding 3 oysters, a slice of lemon, and a glass of white wine; cover of Ruth Reichl's The Paris Novel

What would you do if a relative left you a plane ticket, $8,000, and instructions to spend it all on a trip to France? Most of us would check the expiration date on our passports and start thinking about what to pack. Not so Stella St. Vincent, the subject of my latest New Books Network interview with Ruth Reichl.

Stella—the heroine of Reichl’s second foray into fiction, The Paris Novel—has her reasons, of course. The bequest comes from her flamboyant, controlling mother, Celia, whose schemes Stella has circumvented for years. And what can Paris offer, anyway, when Stella has a comfortably circumscribed, carefully planned life in New York?

Well, quite a bit, it turns out. Stella fights the forces of change for as long as she can, but in the end Paris—in the form of a designer dress, fabulous food, a charming elderly companion, and the opportunity to research the lives of not one but two overlooked women from the past—opens her up to life in ways that even Celia could not have imagined.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Stella St. Vincent, a thirty-something copy editor in 1980s New York, has survived a relationship with her mother, Celia, so complicated that even the words “my daughter” give Stella pause. Celia lived life to the fullest, reinventing herself and discarding anything that no longer pleased her, including Stella’s father, whom Celia refused even to name. And when Stella rebelled by becoming the exact opposite of her mother—disciplined, buttoned-down, reliant on schedules to guarantee safety—Celia did her best to push her daughter out of that comfort zone before distancing herself from Stella as well. So the bequest in Celia’s will is no accident: Stella inherits $8,000, a ticket to Paris, and instructions to spend all the money before returning home.

Stella resists until her employer forces her to take a leave of absence. Even then, Stella spends weeks in Paris scheduling every meal and sightseeing tour—until a strange shopkeeper intent on selling a beautiful dress designed by Yves St. Laurent sends Stella on a journey that will expose her to a lost nineteenth-century painting, the artist who created it, her own past, and the sensory experiences that she has denied herself for so long.

Captivating and beautifully written, The Paris Novel contrasts the eternal story of a young woman finding herself with a historical mystery involving a nineteenth-century artists’ model whose own quest to chart a new course for her life challenged the conventions of her time.


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