In “Into A Paris Quartier,” Diane Johnson explores St-Germain-des-Prés, that most touristic of Paris neighborhoods, and tries to do it justice. Part of National Geographic’s Literaty Travel series, which challenges authors to write guidebooks to the areas that inspire their fiction,
Johnson’s book, somewhat predictably, prefers history to geography, spending more time discussing royal succession than local sights. After “Le Mariage” and “Le Divorce,” both of which won her acclaim the world over, the novelist uses her brisk narrative voice and genuine fascination for Paris to act as a sort of “gossipy tour guide,” leading readers through a quartier packed with stories. Johnson, who lives six months of the year in a beautiful apartment in St-Germain (a picture of which is included in the book), clearly loves the area, and one gets the sense reading “Into A Paris Quartier,” that she’s been waiting for this opportunity to write about the area for awhile.
For Johnson, the story of St-Germain-des-Prés begins with Reine Margot, daughter of Catherine de Medicis, who first created a literary, artistic, and intellectual foundation and who kept a journal that Johnson quotes from widely in her book. Also of particular prominence in Johnson’s experience of the area is D’Artagnan, the real-life musketeer who made the neighborhood his home and who, in “Into A Paris Quartier,” is pegged as its greatest hero.
There are many more real-life heroes and villains, both historical and contemporary, that populate Johnson’s book, and they all had a role to play in making the area so interesting. But Johnson’s enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of her, and the breeziness of the narrative, which sees her jumping from topic to topic at a moment’s notice, has a tendency to get a little sloppy. That being said, the book is packed full of information and Johnson’s pleasure in sharing what she knows is infectious. DW