Acclaimed by the Guardian as 'an inspirational work of scholarship and love', this is a new history of one of the greatest cities in the world by one of the foremost historians of France.In this wonderfully readable book, Alistair Horne tells the huge and romantic story of Paris through seven ages of turmoil and change: the Middle Ages, the 100 years war, the Paris of Louis XIV, the age of Napoleon, the Commune, the Empire days of Louis-Napoleon and Eugenie, and the First World War and De Gaulle. Interweaving historical narrative with telling detail, this is a fluent and definitive work of social and cultural history. 'The best book I have read on Paris in a long time' Gregor Dallas, BBC History Books of the Year 'Reading Seven Ages of Paris is like taking an exciting trip in a French balloon' Antonia Fraser, New Statesman Books of the Year 'Provides not only a panorama of the capital, but also a well-crafted history of France with a nice balance between broad overviews and engaging episodes and details' Jonathan Fenby, The Times
Setting: Paris, France from before 1000 AD to 1968
The author starts by saying that every city is like a person, and Paris is definitely a woman. Like any fascinating woman, she is changeable and captivating. I'm not entirely sure this conceit works, but it's not a bad way to start off the book.
Here's what works: I could certainly feel the amount of research that must have gone into this book. I'm sure it was staggering, and it shows. The author is obviously really familiar with all the key people, places, and ideas. And I liked being able to link things together. For the first time, I really got a sense of how all those Louis's fit together and exactly who Cardinal Richelieu was.
What didn't work: Really, it was too much. I was overwhelmed. Some of that may have been my fault, for trying to read the book straight through, without putting it down for very long, but I was afraid I would lose my place, so to speak, if I set it down. So I pushed through and it got to be confusing.
Personal feelings: I was actually glad to see that the writer sort of skimmed through the French Revolution. It became just one of a series of revolts occuring in the capital, and rather than go into all the disgusting violence in a lot of detail, he just hit on a few things, especially how it affected the look of the city itself and the economy. I read The Lost King of France last year and that one had gory detail piled upon detail of dismemberment, torture, and so on, until I couldn't wait to put it down. This book spared me all that, and I was glad. But if you are interested in the history of France primarily during the French Revolution, this is probably not a great book for you.
My other observation is probably not the author's fault, but the publishers. This is the kind of book (or I am the kind of reader, I don't know which) where you need some more maps and illustrations and so on to figure out what's going on. Instead of having them throughout the text, there are a few pages of color pictures and a few pages of black and white pictures, and that's it. I would have liked at least a black and white picture of all the major monarchs and landmarks. He assumes that you know what Paris looks like, but I only know what I've seen in books and movies. But like I say, that may be the publisher. They seem to be very picky about how many pictures they will include.
Overall: I enjoyed this book, somewhat, but I came away with the strong impression that I am EXTREMELY glad that I do not live in Paris, especially in Paris before 1900. It sounds like a horrible place to live for most people. Yes, there were great artists, musicians, scientists, and politicians who lived there and left their marks on the city. But most of the time, it was a miserable place to be, with plagues, fires, open sewage, constant violence, and little or no civil liberties. Various groups would be rounded up for whatever reason - heresy, political unrest - and summarily executed or tortured. I know this went on in most of the world, but wow, I got really tired of reading about it page after page. I debated between 2.5 stars and 3, but I decided to round up, because I think the author did a pretty good job. It's just that I found the subject rather grimmer than I expected.
Great book and very thorough and educational although I suspect the readers that will appreciate this book the most are those who already have a good basic knowledge about Paris and her history.
I was reminded of fellow Goodreader F1Wild, who doesn't like military history. I don't either, so I was psyched that Horne breezes by military affairs, while giving much more shrift to art, literature. architecture, fashion, and the rest of what makes society.
And Jennifer will be pleased to hear that the epilogue focuses on Père Lachaise Cemetery, which has so many important people in it that it's basically like a history of Paris unto itself.
Totally readable, exquisitely researched, gossipy in a good way...this is a very, very good book. I wish I'd never visited Paris without it.
If you just want an old-fashioned political history of France, centered on Paris, with very little nuance regarding societal structure, this book may be for you. But it is thin gruel if you want to learn about the city.