“Crossing on the Paris: A Novel”
Author: Dana Gynther Publisher: Gallery Books, Simon & Schuster
Price: $15.00 (Paper)
The date is June 15, 1921, Le Havre, France. Three women who have never met are captured by the ship’s photographer as they mount the gangplank for the maiden voyage of the French luxury liner “Paris.”
The “Ship of Fools” motif in fiction, most famously exploited in the novel by Katherine Anne Porter, is time honored and very useful.
For the next five days, on their voyage to New York City, these three women will be citizens of a world apart, a floating microcosm of humanity. There will be flashbacks to events in Paris and Le Havre, but mostly this is a sealed voyage narrative.
As the reader will soon guess, these women will meet, interact, and become acquainted although they begin their voyages as strangers and as members of three separate worlds aboard the ship.
The reader will learn the life story of each woman as she moves through a reassessment of her life, comes to a fork in her life’s road, and must choose which direction to go.
Vera Sinclair is an older woman, rich, sophisticated and ill. Vera has spent over 30 years in Paris in high society, and, travelling first class, is returning to New York to die.
She has kept journals of her adventures and her lovers, and in reading and rereading them tries to come to terms with her life’s decisions.
Constance Stone is returning to America in comfortable second class after a fruitless effort to convince her younger sister Faith to return home to help care for their mother, who has dementia. Faith loves Paris, has a French boyfriend, and refuses.
Constance, like Lambert Strether in Henry James’ “The Ambassadors,” is tempted to seek some freedom of her own. Constance is married to George, a dull, pipe-smoking professor of geography; they have three daughters.
On the voyage home Constance meets and becomes infatuated with the charming ship’s doctor Serge Chabron and is contemplating not only an affair but a radical change in direction. She married too young, in haste, and feels trapped. She must, in the existential sense, either CHOOSE to be with George, not merely continue with him, or else CHOOSE to start a radical new life.
The third woman, young Julie Vernet, is a maid in steerage. She lost three brothers in the war and yearns for adventure, especially romantic excitement, and she will get some as she falls for unscrupulous, predatory Nikolai, an oiler from the engine room.
This novel sails under no false colors. It flies the chick-lit flag. The book comes in trade paperback original and has only women as major characters. The men are either boring or ethically challenged, and in the back matter are the suggested reading club questions such as one on Constance’s decision regarding an adulterous affair with Serge: “Would you have made a different choice? Why or why not?”
But it is a good, quick read. The three characters are distinct, the descriptions of life in first, second and steerage class are informative, and there is a good back story.
Dana Gynther took a BA in French at UA and then, after 18 months in France, an MA in French literature. Living now for 20 years in Spain with her Spanish husband, she recently translated into English the exhibit catalog “Giants of the Atlantic: Steamers of the French Line” and became interested and knowledgeable about the luxury ships—the cabins, the food, the social life, from the first-class orchestra to the Irish singing and dancing in steerage.
When the Paris lands in New York the voyage is over and nothing will be the same again.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”