As well as being interested in social history as per this post and how women lived in the past, I am equally fascinated by how other women live in the the present day in other countries. When I heard about the debut novel ‘These Dividing Walls’ by Fran Cooper which tracks the lives of ordinary people living and working in modern-day Paris, during one long, hot summer, I knew I had to read it.
It didn’t disappoint. The main downside was that there wasn’t an overly intricate plot, what it essentially was is a character study of a number of ‘ordinary’ people living in an apartment building on the corner of two streets in the 5th arrondissement. However, this was fine by me, as I’m not a huge fan of complicated plots anyway, I often prefer to be able to enjoy a book at a simpler level. It is a topical read, for France in particular but also for other Western societies.
The residents of the building are very different from one another and all have their struggles to face, from loneliness, depression, grief, unemployment to prejudice. The characters were mostly very believable and easy to empathise with, even if some were unpleasant and frustrating. There are quite a lot of characters and I found it a little bit challenging to follow them all (probably not helped that they obviously had unfamiliar French names) to begin with, but was glad that I stuck with it past the first couple of chapters.
The heatwave affecting Paris during the summer that the book is set in acts as a metaphor for the simmering political tensions that eventually reach breaking point.This may sound negative, and there is some tragedy within the story but there is also also healing and inspiration. It certainly wasn’t all about political issues either, as the personal issues affecting individual characters are explored and mostly resolved by the end.
I thought that the author had a real skill for descriptive prose, and for other Francophiles it is a treat to take in the detailed descriptions of the city of Paris and reminded me of many of the things I love about France. Admittedly it is different from the superficial impression that tourists may gain from short visits, but I found it all the more fascinating to be given a glimpse into the lives of inhabitants who make up the real Paris and to see what constitutes everyday life for them.
The (albeit English) author clearly had a good knowledge of the real Paris so I imagine she may have spent time living there, and I hope that she will write other novels set there too.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in reading about real life in (slightly gritty) modern-day Paris. Let me know what you think if you give it a read!