I’ve just put down Tatiana de Rosnay’s The House I Loved released in March 2012, a novel about one woman’s undying adoration for her past, her deceased husband and her threatened home. I was drawn to this novel and to its author because of the book’s setting in Paris. Like me, de Rosnay is a Parisian author, and her latest work speaks to a Paris of yesteryear, a time before Baron Haussmann gave the city its current face.
The House I Loved is the first of Madame de Rosnay’s books I’ve read. Since beginning the novel, I have come to discover that she is the author of nine books including the acclaimed Sarah’s Key which I have yet to read. As a true beginner in de Rosnay’s style, I opened the first page with hopes of adventure and love and heartbreak, throbbing with history and mystery alike. My Mom had read the book just before me. In fact, she’s the one who recommended it to me, sending it along in one of her care packages from home.
Perhaps I was overzealous in my expectations of this novel. Perhaps the story I was writing in my head about the house in Paris back in the 1860s was one of untold truths and unearthed secrets. Perhaps I was anticipating something along the lines of one of my favorite childhood novels, The Secret Garden.
But the truth is I was bored reading The House I Loved. The succession of tiny chapters keeps the reader humming along as the story of Rose and her house unfolds. We meet her friends – the timid well-dressed bookseller, the independent spirited florist, the gentle mysterious homeless man and the elegant Baroness – those who kept her life going after her husband’s death. We follow her through her heartbreak as she receives word that her street and her home will be destroyed to accommodate the new design of les grands boulevards laid forth by the French Emperor and the Préfet, Baron Haussmann. We even share in Rose’s devastation as she tells us how she suffered at the death of her only son and her belatedly realization that her favoritism for him is largely responsible for her dysfunctional relationship with her daughter.
We, the reader, accompany Rose through these life traumas as she recounts them in letters to her late husband. And yet we are left outside the window looking into her home and her heart. De Rosnay is quite clearly a master of description, but her narrative motor, by way of the series of letters, leaves the reader, or at least it left me, quite distanced from the emotions and action of the story. We feel like we’re on the same train with Rose, but we’re not to whom she’s talking, we’re not the one she cares to communicate with. For 200 pages, Rose recounts and recounts her life, sorrows and heartbreak over the facelift the city is facing as we grasp for some connection to her. Then, as a function of the narrative structure, all the sudden in the last 20 pages she delivers all the action and adventure the novel has to offer.
I felt rushed, denied, shut out and confused.
I had hoped to be swept away in a world that is no more, a world of a time gone by that can only now be accessed through literature. Instead, de Rosnay focused 95% of her novel on the internal dialogue of her main character. It reminded me of a 1960s French film I recently watched with my parents-in-law where the two main characters spent 90% of the film causally talking about their day. Perhaps this is a French thing?
When I put the book down this morning, I told myself that I would definitely pick up another of de Rosnay’s works, for certain of her passages, certain of her descriptions were indeed so vivid, so exacting, they abundantly demonstrated her superior literary talent. The House I Loved, unfortunately, was not one such novel for me.