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Eleanor Brown’s ‘The Light of Paris’ Reminds Readers They Are Not Alone

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Eleanor Brown’s new novel, The Light of Paris, weaves together the story of two women: One living in the United States at the end of the last millennium, the other is a woman who lives in Paris at the height of the Jazz Age.

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Author Eleanor Brown

Brown says that she was inspired to write the novel after a conversation she had with her parents about her grandmother.

“I was talking to them about Jazz Age Paris,” she says, “and my father said, very casually, ‘Oh, you know your grandmother was in Paris in the 1920s. She lived there. I had this reaction, like, ‘No! I didn’t know that!’ Then my mother told me, ‘Not only that, but we have all of the letters she wrote home when she lived there. I was absolutely floored. So I took the letters home, and I read them. They are just amazing. She lived such a wonderful life in Paris. She had such a fabulous time there. She was there in 1924. It’s so exciting. I read them, and I thought, ‘There is a story here!’"

Where does that go from having that source material to then having character and plot?

For me, it’s all about the questions that arise. I looked at the person who I saw in those letters—and I didn’t know my grandmother very well but certainly I’ve heard my mother speak about her—and I thought about the person my mother talked about. And they are not the same person. I thought, ‘What happened? Where did that change come from?’ And then it just started to spin out from there.

I wanted to back up and ask: As you’re reading this material that your grandmother had written, did you start feeling a kinship with her? Like, ‘Wow! I’ve thought that. I’ve felt that!

I totally did. It was actually kind of fun because I think we look back and think, ‘1923-1924, life was so different.’ But she was 23-24 when she was writing these letters. I’m reading them, and I’m thinking, ‘I could have written these letters when I was 23.’ The slang is different, sure, but she’s worried about work and she’s worried about romance and she’s worried about her parents’ approval and all of these things that we are all concerned about. I just fell in love with her through those letters. She’s funny, and she’s curious, and she’s brash. I really felt connected to her as I read. That was an amazing experience.”

Although the novel examines two different generations and two different lives there are also commonalities between these women living at the beginning of the twentieth century and at its end.

“I very purposefully set the two different story lines in 1924 and in 1999,” Brown says, “which are these two years that are so heavy with change. Nineteen-twenty-four which is the peak of this Jazz Age Paris, they’re still in recovery from World War I—the world had never seen anything like that before—and 1999, I don’t know if you remember that, but we all felt like we were on the brink of something. That everything was going to change. The Y2K problem, all of these things. I hope people will think about all of the changes that happened then. I also have become really passionate about people recording their stories and leaving them for future generations in the way that my grandmother did for me. As much as we are talking about our lives on social media, that’s not really leaving something behind. My grandmother’s letters were so valuable to me—obviously professionally because they inspired me to write a book, but also personally. I’m really eager for people to read this and think about, ‘Huh. Who were my grandparents? How did that influence the person that I became?’”

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You bring up such a good point about leaving a record. A friend of mine—many years ago, his father had passed—and he discovered these diaries that his father had kept about automobile maintenance. He could tell when his dad had bought a car and when he had an oil change. But there was this story that emerged about his travels and so forth.

It’s funny because since I started writing this book and since it’s been published, I’m hearing people: 'I have my uncle’s journals and I have these things.’ The things that come out in them, even unintentionally, as you said: ‘It’s about car maintenance.’ But it’s not about car maintenance. It’s about the journeys he took. The fact that someone would keep a journal about car maintenance. What does that tell you about the kind of person they were? What did they value? What was important to them? That is so exciting. I’m super curious to read those now. They sound great.

A question that I’ll end with is a question that I like to ask authors sometimes: Why is this book the right book for now? I think it does speak to a lot of things that are happening.

Oh my gosh! That is such a big question. I was just talking to a friend the other day about how crazy the world feels right now. I feel like art and connections are the things that are going to keep us sane. This is what stories, to me, are all about. This is their great power: To be able to reach out and say, ‘You are not alone. I see on these pages something that I feel as well.’ And to remind us, when we feel so divided, that we are actually deeply, deeply connected. So, I hope that that’s something that is extra comforting to people in this moment that we’re living in right now.

Eleanor Brown appears at Watermark Books Monday, July 25 at 6 p.m. The Light of Paris is out now.

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 Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.