Emperor of Paris subtle love story of carrying on
For many writers the setting is all-important, a central point in the story or the very reason the story exists.
In Scott Richardson’s case, setting is important, but for a different reason, especially given that The Emperor of Paris, published by Doubleday Canada, could have been in any city. It could have been The Emperor of London or New York or Berlin.
Instead, as writing is often a slow, laborious task, Richardson said he might as well choose a place he really likes.
“The way I write and with the grinding slowness, it takes forever to write these books. It took five years for this one,” he said. “If I’m going to spend this amount of time in a place either imaginary or real, I had better like where I’m going to be, and I love Paris.
“When I first started writing seriously I had it in the back of my head that at some point I was going to write a novel that was set in Paris because I love reading those kinds of books and it is a bit of a challenge because everybody has at some point written something about Paris.”
That in itself was another challenge Richardson, an award-winning book designer turned novelist, said he faced; finding that point between providing just enough detail to set his story in the everyday life in Paris without going overboard and making it a history or a tour guide of the City of Lights.
“I didn’t want to talk about the place we have all visited. I wanted to drill down and find out and explore what life was like for the everyday Parisian.”
The Emperor of Paris, set in the 1920s, is remarkable in that it is the most exceptional, unexceptional book to come along in some time. Two people fall in love over a shared love of books. The story is built on the strength of his characters, who are far from perfect, each given to their own twist or quirk, but in that, each are unique. In short, Richardson’s characters are human, and that makes them interesting and, as a result, allows Richardson’s story to rise up.
Octavio Notre-Dame, a baker, is dyslexic. He’s thrown out of school at an early age because his “word blindness” makes it difficult for him to learn and to be taught, and yet he insists on collecting books he cannot read, but loves nonetheless. Isabeau Normande, meanwhile, suffered a disfiguring burn as a young girl, leaving a scar on her face that she hides from the world through her hair, a scarf and a tilt of the head.
Octavio’s father, whose health and positive outlook on life are ruined in the trenches of the Great War, is also dyslexic and illiterate and his mother suffers from debilitating depression. Isabeau’s parents are perfectionists and concerned with status and appearances and a disfigured daughter reflects poorly upon them, especially her mother.
In short, it is the imperfections in Richardson’s characters, handled subtly throughout the book, that make them human, but not larger than life.
Richardson’s interest in how people continue to live their lives despite their own personal challenges. drives his story. Even though his characters find a way to overcome adversity, Richardson doesn’t turn them into heroes – just like most people, who find a way to carry on without fanfare.
“It is so fascinating to me, when I meet somebody new or even when I meet somebody on the street, that we’re all normal and we all go through our lives, but everyone of us has something. Something in the background, something in our personality, something in our hopes and fears that sets us apart from everybody else,” he said.
“Ninety per cent of the time it is so subtle and so quiet you’d never know.”
“That is what I’m intrigued with,” he said.
Richardson’s first novel, The End of the Alphabet, was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and a finalist for the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award.
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