Part guidebook, part biography, Susan Cahill’s The Streets of Paris: A Guide to the City of Light Following in the Footsteps of Famous Parisians Throughout History (St. Martin’s Press) provides no fewer than 22 unique ways to explore one of the world’s most visited cities. Each chapter focuses on one significant Parisian – from 12th Century lovers, Heloise and Abelard, to Nobel Prize winner, Patrick Modiano (Literature; 2014) – and the chapters themselves are grouped by the city’s neighborhoods. This has the effect of drawing the reader into the life of the city, both literally and figuratively.
Featuring both the universally recognizable (like Marie and Pierre Curie) and the largely unknown (such as World War II-era Islamic leader, Si Kaddour Benghabrit), The Streets of Paris is full of stories that will showcase something new for even the most ardent Francophile and the predominantly narrative style helps to make this a book for armchair travelers as well.
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The reader is presented with the beauty of Henri IV’s developments in the Île de la Cité, and later with his much-maligned wife, Margot’s, apparent revenge from the Hôtel de Sens in the Marais district. Voltaire has his own chapter, but also features in the story of the aging courtesan, Ninon de l’Enclos. These links give the reader a sense of the history of the French capital across time, while the book’s structure applies that history to the geography that visitors on the ground will want to explore.
Helping visitors to orient themselves within the city, photographs by Marion Ranoux capture the essence of each neighborhood and bookend each chapter. If you’re not currently in Paris, or intimately familiar with its streets, you might also need a map to make sense of some parts of this book.
For visitors to the city, important locations and the closest Metro station are provided at the beginning of each chapter, and sections of “Nearbys” at the end provide suggestions for cafes, restaurants, gardens and museums that might also be of interest.
At times, however, the mixture of guidebook and biography can become confusing as directions, personal anecdotes, histories, and clusters of street names combine in ways that do not always help to guide readers. Instead of weaving the narrative around a route through the neighborhood, or entirely separating the biography from the recommended places to visit, The Streets of Paris attempts to shift between its dual purposes, and the result is not always effective.
Despite some challenges with clarity, The Streets of Paris provides an excellent starting point for anyone looking to explore beyond the surface of the city, and would be an enjoyable gift for traveler and history lovers alike.