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'The House I Loved' is an ode to a Paris lost

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:47 AM

"The House I Loved" (St. Martin's Press), by Tatiana De Rosnay

The French novelist Tatiana De Rosnay rocketed to worldwide prominence after the well-deserved success of her best-selling "Sarah's Key."

Her 2007 book tells a captivating tale about the roundup of Jewish immigrants in France and the daring locals who hid them during World War II.

The characters in "Sarah's Key" are complex, heartfelt and memorable — from Sarah herself to the modern-day American journalist who's compelled to uncover her story.

"The House I Loved" again takes place in De Rosnay's homeland, this time in Paris during the 1860s when much of the city is destroyed to make way for its rebirth into modernity. Against this backdrop, Rose Bazelet tells the story of her life and her dedication to her home in the form of a love letter to her long-dead husband.

The novel provides a fascinating glimpse into a little-known (at least by many Americans) time in Napoleon's Paris when hundreds of houses, shops and restaurants were destroyed to redesign the city into its 20 spiral-arranged arrondissements. As a love letter to Paris, the novel succeeds.

"What had become of my medieval city, its quaint charm, its sinuous dark alleys? It seemed to me that tonight Paris had turned into a florid, overripe harlot flaunting her froufrous."

But the few characters feel flat and hastily drawn, and Rose's dedication to her husband's family home feels forced and artificial despite her repeated and vehement declaration of her desire to die within its walls. Her devotion seems even more ill-placed when readers discover the great secret that happened inside the structure.

The writing, however, is lovely — despite the jarring backward-looking use of the past tense throughout — and the sentiment thought-provoking.

"This house is like my body, it is like my own skin, my blood, my bones. It carries me like I have carried our children. It has been damaged, it has suffered, it has been violated, it has survived, but today, it will collapse."

For the true Francophile, it will be enough.

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