Losing, searching, finding and, ultimately, transforming: these themes twine together in Paris By the Book as Leah and her daughters, Ellie and Daphne, move from Milwaukee to Paris to look for their missing husband and father, Robert. At the beginning, they share a belief that they are following clues he has left for them. But as they settle into life without him in Paris as bookshop owners, Leah discovers that the girls are still actively looking for him even as she begins to learn to live without him as the first anniversary of his disappearance looms.
The novel takes advantage of coincidence that seems to border on magical, a concern addressed in the early page of the book. Robert, an author, uses coincidence in his writing while Leah suggests “it was barely plausible in his novels for kids and wholly out of place in his adult work.” The author, Liam Callanan, is being coy, as at that moment, on their last day in Paris, coincidence drives the story, perhaps part of the magic of Paris?
Because Paris is more than simply a setting for the story; it plays an essential role as it was home to Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of Madeline, and Albert Lamorisse, creator of The Red Balloon. Both Ellie and Daphne absorbed the love of these works from Leah and Robert and their Paris experiences are shaped by that love and technical knowledge. And, it is the setting of Robert’s next book, although Leah does not know that until after she has begun her new life.
Beyond the fantasy and “vertigo” of Paris, as Leah calls it, this is the story of a family, one that, as Leah is reminded at one point, had memories and dreams. Robert takes to the role of father in creative and supportive ways…when he is home. But his more frequent absences for “writeaways” have begun to fray the edges of the marriage and even the fabric of the family itself.
And at its core, this is Leah’s story. She is an honest narrator, willing to share her contradictions and failures, one who, as her therapist points out, uses humor to deal with life. Her fierce love for and pride in her daughters as they deal with their loss and their new found lives is a recurring theme, and no matter what happens with Robert, we know the three of them will be okay. They have allowed tragedy to transform them rather than defeat them.