Hemingway praised Paris as “a movable feast.” Henry James, in his preface to the 1903 edition of The Ambassadors, described a cliché that may or may not be true. He said “the moral scheme breaks down in Paris” and that “hundreds of thousands of…persons annually visit the place for the sake of the probable catastrophe.” This cliché presents a challenge. An author who writes fiction set in Paris must overcome formulaic risks.
I’m happy to report that Rachel Kendall does an exceptional job of keeping her novel, Stranger Days, fresh, fun and riveting. Kendall doesn’t shy away from the usual intrigue and romance of Paris, but she does it so well, Stranger Days is a pleasure to read. The edgy plot, with its dose of psychological darkness, held my interest from beginning to end. The characters come across as absolutely real. A young English couple befriends an unusual French girl named Elodie who guides them to cafes and clubs, the banks of the Sein, parks, museums, and even Proust’s tomb. Kendall writes with a nimble descriptive style that, to risk a cliché of my own, reminds me of Ernest Hemingway, painting complete scenes with only a few words. For example:
She took me to a shop in miniature, its windows overstuffed with rings in boxes and necklaces hanging from hooks and bracelets coiled like snakes, every space filled with gemstone and pearl.
The English girl shops, rummages, seeks outwardly for the magic of France in trinkets, clothes, shoes, or the sensual touch of a bronze statue. Her boyfriend searches inward, focused on books, ideas, and art theory. Who knows what the quirky Elodie is thinking, much less what she is looking for? She toys with friendships. She likes vultures and Venus Fly Traps. She exudes a hint of forbidden sex. Sometimes she is pleasant but other times she can be cruel. Is she merely playful or is she dangerous?
There is a metafictional aspect to Stranger Days in that the narrator is trying to write a novel while in France. Her contemplations and observations are just as absorbing as the actual plot, and sometimes they are interwoven. “Like clockwork,” the protagonist says about her novel, “every part has its effect on every other part, the cogs interlink to create a certain flow and the pendulum must keep swinging to keep a certain rhythm.”
Don’t let my earlier references to Hemingway and James make you think the story is old-fashioned. What I’m saying is that Rachel Kendall wrote Stranger Days with a modern, contemporary sensibility and with the poise of a master.