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Novel set in Paris and Chicago (“well-paced and really compelling”)

27th June 2016

Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago by Douglas Cowie, novel set in Paris and Chicago.

novel set in paris and chicagoSimone de Beauvoir meets Nelson Algren in February 1947 when she rings him up and asks him to show her the ‘real’ Chicago. He takes her on breakneck tour of the seamier side of Chicago – the dives, the cabarets, even the police cells – and then back to his apartment on Wabansia Avenue, where the love affair, which was to last for two decades, begins. They are an unlikely pairing – she France’s feminist icon, member of an intimate circle of Parisian intellectuals and philosophers and in a long term relationship with Sartre – and Algren, a radical writer, champion of the down-and-out, whose closest friends are drunks, gamblers and drug addicts.

Simone, however, soon comes to see Nelson as the great love of her life and Nelson terms her his “frog wife” and longs for some permanence in the relationship. The couple spend as much time together as the constraints of 1940’s and 50’s travel and the demands of work will allow but their long-distance love affair is doomed from the start.   Simone wants to be in Paris, believing that Sartre needs her and that their work together is of immense importance and Nelson “loses” his passport for six years because of suspect political links. Inevitably, Nelson begins to resent Simone’s reluctance to prioritize their relationship and the continued presence of Sartre in Simone’s life.

What makes this account of an already fairly well-documented love affair very special is the way that Cowie gets beneath the skin of the characters. Great intellectual and influential figures, in Cowie’s hands, become human souls struggling with the dilemmas that we all face. There is great tenderness in his account of Simone’s anguish when Nelson, in a fit of pique, withholds his love from her. But Cowie is doing more than just skilfully telling us a story; he is exploring the nature of relationships and the gap between hopes and expectations and the reality, particularly when each of the lovers wants different things from the relationship.

Cowie’s account of Nelson and Simone’s travels in Mexico and Guatemala makes very interesting reading too. The pair believe themselves to be different from the other tourists; they avoid the much promoted tourist hotel and stay instead with a local family on a farm; they pride themselves on seeking out restaurants and bars frequented by locals, not noticing that the locals accurately see them for what they are and overcharge them accordingly. We laugh at Nelson and Simone’s pretensions but are inevitably uncomfortably aware of having similar ideas ourselves from time to time.

This is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster of a novel – you find yourself laughing, crying, cringing and gloating by turns. It’s not always a comfortable read; it makes you question your own attitudes as a traveller, as a lover, but it’s sensitively written, well-paced and really compelling.

Well worth a read.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

You can follow Douglas on Twitter and connect via his website

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And for more books set in PARIS, just click here and CHICAGO here


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