Tatiana de Rosnay: The House I Loved (2012)

Her newest novel, Rose, is already an early spring hit in France. Again written initially in English, this historical work evokes Paris under the Second Empire and the grand urban redesign ordered by Baron Haussmann: Rose, an aging widow living in her family home in a small street near the church of Saint Germain des Prés, receives a letter announcing that her home is slated for destruction to make way for the new Boulevard Saint Germain.

I haven’t read any of Tatiana de Rosnay’s novels before. Knowing she is one of the most successful French writers made me a bit suspicious but when I saw a copy of Rose in our local bookshop I felt drawn to it immediately as the novel is about Paris. It’s only after browsing the book that I found out, the original, The House I Loved, was written in English and Rose is a translation. I wasn’t even aware that Tatiana de Rosnay has written most of her latest novels in English and – less surprisingly – that this contributed to her international success.

The House I Loved is written in  the form of a long letter from Rose to her deceased husband. She tells him that she has, after all, been informed that she has to move. Her house is among those which will be destroyed to make way for the large boulevards which are part of the redesign of Paris ordered by the Prefect, Baron Haussman. The idea to lose the house breaks Rose’s heart. She loves this house, loves it for its history and because it is the family home of her husband. For her, whose mother was cold and distant, the house has become her home just like his family has become her family.

In this long letter she looks back on her past, how she grew up, how they met, speaks to him about her children, their life together, the sadness about the death of her son, about her husband’s illness, his confusion and his death. The memories and remembrances are often interrupted by the present. The people who will tear down the house will arrive soon but she has still not left. She speaks of the destruction, how the city changes.

I had a bit of a problem with the way this was told. The tone is very sentimental, at times corny, the voice too modern for the time depicted. I think it would have been much better as a third or a simple first person narrative instead of this epistolary confession. Still I’m very glad I have read this. It captured a particular moment in the history of the city of Paris very well. I love Paris for its big Boulevards and Avenues, the Paris of the Baron Haussmann. They represent Paris for me. When those big Boulevards were designed, the old medieval streets had to go, the houses were torn down. I tend to forget at what cost the remodeling of the city was achieved. It is so hard to imagine what it would have meant to own a family house, full of memories and histories and to be informed that it will be torn down and destroyed for the sake of modernisation and sanitation. Tatiana de Rosnay captures the enormity of such a loss very well.

In oder to achieve authenticity, Tatiana de Rosnay said in an interview, she wrote most of the novel with a pen, by candlelight. “I had the idea for this novel 15 years ago, after seeing pictures of streets now forgotten,” she explains. “It contains my two obsessions: memories embedded in the walls and family secrets.”

If anything The House I Loved made me want to pick up a few non-fiction books on this topic or Zola’s novel La CuréeThe Kill, which Emma reviewed recently here.

If you don’t mind a sentimental tone and are fond of historical novels and books set in Paris you might enjoy this entertaining novel.

I have attached a video about an exhibition of photos taken during the time. Although it is in French, you see many amazing photos. The person interviewed speaks about the numbers – how many houses were destroyed and why and about the photographer and why there were no people on the photos (at that time they couldn’t capture movement – so the streets had to be empty).

This review is a contribution to Karen’s and Tamaras‘s event Paris in July

28 thoughts on “Tatiana de Rosnay: The House I Loved (2012)

  1. I really like the idea of how she writes the book. I have never read any book in form of letter before. I tried reading Dracula way back…and it started with some sort of writing, but I couldn’t continue it because it was somehow boring (Maybe I should try Dracula again as I am getting older now and might like the writing).

    A long letter to a dead husband is kinda like diary but in another form. I like that approach. But I don’t think I will enjoy the book.

    You’re doing great in this Paris event ;)

    • I agree with you, the approach was very good but the tone was sugary. I would have liked it more if she had been a bit more sober. Still overall I can recommend it.
      It wouldn’t be your thing though
      I did like Dracula a lot. You should try again.
      I usually like books in letter form a lot. It’s a lot like a diary addressed to someone else, especially when the person is dead.

      • I am planning to read it again, especially after I knew it is one of SK’s favorite books…but not sure when..yet!

        Have you seen/read PS.I Love You? it was also about a letter, but from her deceased husband. I quite like the movie…not interested with the book tho.

    • I dodn’t think the book would be for you but I liked the parts on Paris and the way she described the destruction. She also writes about the novelists of the time, their reaction to the rebuilding.
      After I posted my review I spoke to a friend who told me that one of the main aims of Haussmman was military. I think it would be very interesting to read a book a bout him. He must have been really hated. On the other hand Paris was in parts insalubrious and a lot had to be torn down.

  2. I’ve heard so many conflicting things about this author–both people who have loved her writing and those who have not liked it at all that I’ve been a little put off reading her (I have her other book that was so popular and made into a movie). I do like the sound of the story-not sure about the sentimental tone. Maybe one to check out from the library and see whether the style works for me or not. Paris is a really beautiful city, isn’t it?!

    • Yes, I would say it really is beautiful. :)
      I would recommned getting it from the library. Read the first ten or so pages and you know right away whether it’s for you or not. It gets more interesting towards the end but the tone remains sentimental.

  3. Wow, great video, Caroline. How I’d love to see all the photos. I had no idea all that destruction took place.
    I read Sarah’s Key and found it hard to put down, but it was very unsettling. The movie even more so.

    Glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t like modern language in a period novel. It sets my teeth on edge when characters use current colloquialsims. :)

    • Yes, it was too modern for its own good but I’m afraid not many people would mind that much.
      Those photos are amazing. I’m sorry I missed that exhibition. I knew about the renovation but neber properly figured what it meant.
      I might still read Sarah’s Key or watch the movie at least.

  4. If true it is amazing that Tatiana de Rosnay wrote much of the book using a pen and under candlelight. It would be an accomplishment in of itself for most modern writers. i wonder if it actually had any impact on the content or tone of the book.

    • I believe her but I don’t think that has anything to do with the tone. I rather think the tone comes from her writing in English. I doubt she is that sentimental in French. I’ve got one of her books which hasn’t been translated, a short novel, I should try and find out.

  5. Nice review, Caroline! I love epistolary novels and I think I will love this. I didn’t know that old houses were demolished to build those grand boulevards. It is the reason that Paris is probably different from other European cities, but it is also sad because of the pain it must have caused to the people whose houses were demolished. I loved Tatiana de Rosnay’s prose and storytelling style in ‘Sarah’ Key’ and now I can’t wait to read ‘The House I loved’. I love sentimental novels :) Thanks for this wonderful review!

    • You’re welcome, Vishy and if you like sentimental novels, you will like this. Towards the end Rose starts reading the books of the timen and that’s another nice dimension.
      The renovation Paris underwent was massive and I think that as brutal this must have been for those who lost their houses it was for the good of the town.
      My grandmother lived in a quarter which was still medieval until the late 20th century. She had to move as well when those houses were demolished. I saw it just before they knocked the houses down, but I was very little and all I remember was darkness in the staircase, lackened walls and that I was very scared and glad when we wnet back to the big boulevards.

      • Thanks Caroline! I will look for this book. Thanks also for sharing your experience about your grandmother’s house. I didn’t know that houses with a medieval structure in Paris survived till late-20th century. I guess it is something about which there will be mixed feelings. I have never been to my dad’s ancestral town and house. I am not sure I will like it because the infrastructure there is quite poor, but my dad grew up there and he feels romantic and nostalgic about it.

        • There are still a lot of medieval quarters and streets, inbetween the big boulevards. The Marais is one of them. There are many little side streets which make orientation difficult but in general you cannot get lost in Paris because sooner or later you land on a big street and you can reorient yourself. The charm of Montmartre also comes from the fact it’s much older tha Haussmann Paris. I think it’s the mix which makes it fascinating. The didn’t knock down everything or Paris would feel very artificial. I’m sure if I had lived in Paris at the time and lost my house, i would have hated Haussmann but he did an admirable job.
          It sounds as if it would be interesting to go to your father’s town.

  6. I’m not very good with sentimental books, although I do appreciate this particular period in history. Zola writes about it brilliantly. And in terms of non-fiction, I’d recommend Graham Robb’s latest book about the history of Paris. Thank you for the review, Caroline. I’ve been wondering about whether to try Tatiana de Rosnay or not and well, I probably won’t just yet, but at least now I have a much better idea of the mood I need to be in to read her!

    • You’re welcome but in your case you could really ry one of her French books. From what i see (I’ve got one her), she is the much better writer in French. Still I think she manages to touch people. She did it with sarah’s Key and I think this one is liked too, because she captures the emotional dmension of a certain time period. She overdid it a bit but read i the right mood, it’s quite enjoyable.
      Thanks a lot for the suggestion. I’ll look it up right away.

  7. I like the historic aspect. I’ve seen houses removed in our area for widening roads and for new construction and have always sympathized with the owners. Now, I’m off to view the video!

    • It’s a quick read. if you find it at the libraray it might be worth a try.
      I totally sympathize with those owners. It must be awful to lose your home like that.

  8. I’ve never read her because I suspected her books to be corny. You just confirmed by impression.
    Why do you think she’s less sentimental in French? Do you think it’s a question of language or a question of market? I mean that she writes different books in English to reach the American market.

    • I suspect her Frehc is better and closer to her than her English. And writing in a language which isn’t 100% your own – even though you are bilingula – is like barrier. I read a few pages in a French one and the sentneces seemed more complex. And, she certainly is a strategic writer by now, meaning , she knows her public, their expectations and writes for them.
      I still liked parts of it but not the writing as such. Really corny at times.

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