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 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).