Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris is an intriguing novel of love, secrets, betrayal, youth, family, and friendship. There’s a whole lot wrapped up in this novel of fewer than 300 pages, but the separation into three distinct segments allows for much ground to be covered in such limited time. The main characters (in the “Present”) are Leopold and Henrietta. Leopold’s strange personality and his relationship to the adults in the novel is the crux of the story, and what becomes revealed as the story progresses. Henrietta has a chance meeting with the boy during a brief delay at Mme. Fisher’s house in Paris (surprise!). Though the novel is told in the third-person, it seems that the story would not have come to be had Henrietta not met Leopold – as this is the window through which we begin to look in on the other characters, both past and present. The middle portion of the novel is “The Past,” in which the story of Leopold’s “coming to be” is told, and the other characters – Leopold’s mysterious mother, Mme and Miss Fisher, and Leopold’s absent father – are all identified and explained.
Bowen’s House in Paris reminds me of a classic Romantic novel – beautiful language, powerful emotion, heroic relationships, and even a bit of gothic terror/mystery. What makes the novel even more enjoyable, in some ways, is that Bowen manages to include all of these elements, but incorporate contemporary prose, so the reader need not wade through 19th century language. Also, Bowen, while descriptive, does not saturate the novel with lengthy imagery. This too proves to benefit the novel overall, because a reader does not get distracted by pages and pages of description about a tree or a meadow (though, admittedly, sometimes this can be fun) and, instead, gets to focus on the touching story, the interpersonal relationships, and the intense friendships. The novel was also filled with short, meaningful moments, such as the tête-à-têtes between Leopold and Henrietta in Miss Fisher’s sitting room. The narrator aptly describes their almost flippant abuses of one another (typically Leopold toward Henrietta) as such: “There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.”
While, on the whole, I found the novel interesting and enjoyable – a fast, relaxing but meaningful read – I was still underwhelmed. I found the subject matter and characters so very interesting, but something was lacking in the final execution. When the novel concluded, I couldn’t help but feel just a bit gypped. Leopold’s future – even immediate future – is only hinted at, but is impossible to tell what will really happen. Miss Fisher and Madame Fisher are left unresolved. The poor Italian family, Leopold’s guardians, are completely thrown overboard. We never see Leopold’s mother, Karen, during “The Present” which, while in some ways masterful, is also extremely frustrating – where’s the momentous meeting between mother and child? How does the family move on? And, in “The Past” we witness Max’s fatal decision, but we’re expected to believe that the friendship between Naomi Fisher and Karen would surmount this – even strenuously? While so much is said by so little – I fear too much is left out. I had a generally good experience with the novel, and could certainly recommend it to interested readers – but not emphatically.
The Final Verdict: 3.5 Out of 5.0
Overall, I did enjoy this novel and I was intrigued by the Romantic elements being delivered through contemporary prose. I found the characters incredibly intriguing, if not always believable.
The family Leopold has been living with in Italy are not Italians, they are expatriate Americans who seem to want to control every aspect of his life. No wonder he wants to get away from them, even if to an unknown mother and stepfather.