Book Review: Paris in Style: A Guide to the City’s Fashion, Style and Design Destinations / by Amy Thibodeau

Paris_In_Style_Cover

Paris is one of my favorite places in the world. It’s a city that unravels itself for anyone who is willing to amble through its many labyrinthine streets and neighborhoods. Although you can visit it and only usher yourself between the popular tourist spots and still feel dazzled, the only real way to get to know the city and feel a part of it is on foot. On this Janelle McCulloch and I agree. 

Paris in Style: A Guide to the City's Fashion, Style and Design Destinations is a beautiful, over-the-top walking tour through some of the most glittering parts of Paris. It’s packaged like a brightly colored macaroon or ornate piece of glass and would look wonderful on a coffee table or as an addition to any collection of picture books about Paris. It doesn’t pretend to be a practical guide and is clearly aimed at people who want to dream about a bit of luxury while still hoping to find something special or hidden in a city that almost everyone has written about. 

McCullough writes, “Splurge on Recamier’s larger, top floor rooms facing the Sainte-Sulpice Cathedral.” From what I can tell, this room costs around £500 a night and is probably out of range for most travelers. It’s a folly and a fantasy, like many of the shops and locales documented gorgeously by McCullough. Think of this as a tour of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Paris. 

Mixed in with the glamour are some solid tidbits information and curiosities: 

  • The last number of any Parisian postal code refers to its arrondissement number
  • People are only allowed to buy one Chanel bag per passport in Chanel stores, no more
  • A list of the “small, lesser-known and unusual museums of architecture, design and decorating” 
  • Another list of vintage book and paper sellers where you can find old postcards, photograph and pieces of paper
  • Where to buy the best fresh flowers
  • What to look forward to when you visit Paris during different times of the year

McCullough also covers some smaller boutique hotels that are more budget-friendly such as Hotel Fabric in Oberkampf, where my husband and I stayed the last time we were in Paris. It was located in a trendy little neighborhood that seemed well removed from MacDonald's, Starbucks, Eiffel Tower t-shirts, and English speakers. Best of all, the hotel had an amazing whiskey bar in the lobby that used the honor system. We would fix ourselves a drink and then let the front desk know how many we’d had at the end of the night so they could add the tally to our bill. Our room was lovely and comfortable and cost just over £100 a night.

At its best, Paris in Style evokes the texture and the feeling of the city, mostly though wonderful photographs (all taken by McCullough). I also loved some of McCullough's lists, which reminded me of the French classic Le Sel de la Vie by Françoise Héritier (In English: The Sweetness of Life). Hértier’s book is a list of all the things that force her to acknowledge the bittersweet ephemerality of life. 

Here’s a selection written by McCullough’s:

Becoming slowly lost in the labyrinthine streets around the Place Saint-Sulpice and feeling like you’ve fallen into an old sepia postcard ... Buying a small bouquet of bright pink peonies in the Île de la Cité flower markets on a Sunday ... Strolling through the pleached avenues of the Palais Royal in the late autumn, when the leaves are falling (or in the summer when the roses are blooming) ... Seeing the city’s famous rooftops at dusk, shimmering gold in the evening light ... Looking up and seeing that Paris is enveloped in the ‘blue hour’, when the sky over the Seine is turning from Schiaparelli pink to the most indigo blue … (pages 71 - 72)

Compare this to the fleeting, sensual moments captured by Héritier:

… having an umbrella when you need one, a big enough umbrella for several people, walking fast, trailing your feet through dead leaves, smiling lovingly at your grandmother’s photographs, listening to owls by night and crickets by day, picking a bunch of wildflowers from embankments, watching swathes of mist drift by …

Doesn’t this make you want to get out in the world? 

Paris is the sweet tactile experience of the decadent bonbon McCullough describes that invites licking your fingers when it’s gone. But like anywhere else, Paris is not perfect and despite the dazzling lights and confections. It’s can also be smelly, dirty, rude and in some places dangerous, desperate and poverty-stricken. It's a multi-faceted, complicated city and one that is clearly beyond the scope of Paris in Style, which is focused squarely on the maintaining the simple fantasy of a purely glamorous experience.

My own favorite version of Paris is fantastic, though quite a bit less glamorous than the one McCullough involves. It involves spring, reading books on benches in blossoming parks, fruit stands with oranges that you can smell as you walk past, warm bread, old men playing pétanque, late evenings drinking cheap wine, late mornings drinking café crème, and rooting through quirky book and antique stores. 

The wonderful thing about Paris is that all of these contradictory realities are true. If nothing else, McCullough’s book may inspire you to design your own version of the city that seems to belong to and elude everyone. Maybe it will get you to finally book the trip you've always dreamed of taking.

Paris in Style was written by Janelle McCullough and published by Melbourne University Press in October 2015. Thanks to Melbourne University Publishing for giving me a review copy of this book.