Reviewed by Ruth Latta
One Evening in Paris,
by Nicolas Barreau
translated from French by Bill McCann
2014, ISBN: 978-1-250-04312-2
One Evening in Paris, French author Nicolas Barreau’s second novel, is a sweet romantic novel in which the owner of a small art cinema is “catapulted into the greatest adventure of [his] life.”
Alain Bonnard, 39, inherited the Cinema Paradis, an historic movie theatre, from his uncle. Raised on the films of Cocteau, Truffault, Malle, and others, he was glad to leave his boring but lucrative business career in plumbing fixtures for something more satisfying. His cinema is his work of art; he restored the building and he forbids popcorn or any of the other features found in modern cineplexes. He takes an interest in his clientele and invents dramatic backstories for them. Late Wednesday nights he shows romantic films as part of his “Les Amours de Paradis” film series, which draws a full house.
One Wednesday night regular is a pretty blonde woman who always sits in the 17th row. Alain finally summons up the nerve to find out her name (Melanie) and ask her out, and they establish an immediate rapport in a bistro after the movie. Melanie says it must be wonderful to own a “dream factory” like the Cinema Paradis, and that she always goes there when she’s “looking for love”. Her only family, she says, is an aunt in Brittany, whom she is going to visit for a week. Though single, she wears a distinctive gold ring with raised pink gold roses, which was her mother’s. When Alain walks her home, they promise to meet at the cinema the following Wednesday.
“We won’t lose each other,” she says – but they do.
The following day, Alain finds a tender love letter she left for him at the cinema, and shares his happiness with his buddy, Robert, a womanizing astrophysicist. Robert is astonished that Alain failed to get Melanie’s telephone number. Then a “weedy little man in a trenchcoat” with an American accent, turns up with the well-known movie star, Solene Avril, to talk to Alain after he closes up the cinema on Friday night. The weedy man is Allan Wood, an American film director, looking for an historic art cinema in which to shoot a movie about a woman finding a long lost love in Paris.
Confident that he will meet Melanie the following Wednesday, Alain enjoys getting to know these famous visitors in famous Paris restaurants and bars, and learns something of their personal stories. Allan Wood has an estranged grown-up daughter in Paris. Solene reveals in a private conversation with Alain that she was born in humble circumstances in Paris and, when young, ran away to California with a young American. Once she got into the movies, she provided money for her parents to take the first holiday of their lives, which ended in a fatal car accident on their way to St. Tropez. Solene subtly flirts with Alain, but he finally tells her that “it’s not the right moment,” and mentions that a woman has recently come into his life.
The paparazzi descend, and soon there are media reports not only that Cinema Paradis has been chosen for the filming of Allan Wood’s new movie, but also that Alain is Solene’s latest lover. He receives congratulations and a boost in business, but, much to Alain’s disappointment, Melanie does not show up at the cinema on Wednesday night as she promised.
One Evening in Paris is full of twists and turns like a mystery novel as Alain, helped by Robert and his new film-industry friends, try to find his Melanie. Two other Melanies turn up, but not the right one.
Barreau’s novel has some coincidences that strain credulity. Also, the occasional sentence is vague, perhaps due to translation, as in the statement that “a good film…worked with [people] in the difficult task of being.” In general, though, One Evening in Paris is fun and full of life. The Paris landmarks and locations will attract anyone who has been there.The narrator/central character, Alain, is the sort of romantic, sensitive man that many women readers wish they could meet in real life, and the other main characters are fully rounded. “Allan Wood” – does his name sound familiar? – is a warm person with no apparent neuroses.
The discussion of film elevates the novel above and beyond category romance. Alain’s Uncle Bernard liked films that “had an idea… moved people…[and] gave them a dream to take with them” – all elements necessary for a good story, whether on film or in print. Through Alain, Nicolas Barreau lists the “golden rules” of good film comedy: “a chase is better than a conversation”; “a bedroom is better than a living room”, and “an arrival is better than a departure.” Barreau uses these storytelling principles to good effect in One Evening in Paris.
Film buffs will like the list of the twenty-five movies about love that were part of Alain’s Wednesday night series at the Cinema Paradis. The list three of my favourites: Casablanca, Room with a View and Pride and Prejudice. Readers who liked Woody Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris, will enjoy Barreau’s novel, One Evening in Paris.
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