Paris Twilightby Russ Rymer
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A moody, sumptuous debut novel set in 1990s ParisMatilde Anselm, professor of cardiac anesthesiology, arrives in Paris from New York to be part of a surgery team in the winter of 1990, as manifestations against the First Gulf War are raging in the streets. Even as her concerns mount over the shadowy protocols surrounding the planned heart transplant, and even as she falls in love with the Arab diplomat in charge of those protocols, a surprise inheritance—a mysterious Paris apartment and a trove of love letters from the Spanish Civil War, bequeathed to her by a stranger—sweep her through a hidden Paris and into the labyrinth of her own buried past.
As the diplomat and the apartment reluctantly reveal their secrets, the tragedies they unearth open a further mystery, the enigma that has haunted Matilde’s life. In the end she is left devastated, liberated, and, for the very first time, herself.
Paris Twilight grapples with the meaning of love, the sin of suicide, and the mystery of family in a masterful fiction debut, a dizzying tale of personal transformation.
It’s 1990, and demonstrations against the First Gulf War are rocking Paris. Cardiac anesthesiologist Matilde Anselm has been recruited by an enigmatic and elegant Arab diplomat to join an elite surgical team in the French capital for the purpose of performing a private heart transplant for an anonymous patient. While there, Matilde is also inexplicably contacted by an attorney who informs her that she has been named the executor of an elderly gentleman’s estate, consisting solely of his small Parisian apartment. No sooner does she set herself up in this space than mysterious love letters addressed to the deceased man begin to arrive regularly. Compelled to find these letters’ source, Matilde launches a quest that leads her to her unknown parentage and the cruelties of the Spanish civil war.
Verdict Sure to appeal to lovers of mysteries and European modern history, this thrillingly intelligent debut novel by the author of the NBCC finalist Genie: A Scientific Tragedy and American Beach, set among the wonders of Paris and against a backdrop of war, provides a haunting, sensitive account of a middle-aged woman’s unearthing of her past and the ambiguities of her own heart. [See Prepub Alert, 1/14/13.]Sheila M. Riley, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, DC
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Read an Excerpt
I’M NOT SURE HOW to explain this, why I am writing to you, you of all people, and writing to you now, except for the simple circumstance that the rain has chased me into this place and does not appear to want to let me go, and here in my confinement all I can find in my purse to occupy me are a pen, a nail file, a piece of paper: prisoner’s tools. I’m ignoring the file. Daniel, I need a witness, and there’s no one else to turn to. Can you imagine how many witnesses we have lost by now, you and I, how little sense it all makes, those ancient awful dramas, with no one around to remember how splendid they were? Oh, how I have hated you! And now you are back on my mind because of the Brahms. And before that, I suppose, the train ride in from the airport. It was snowing. The winter this year was précoce, as they call it here, and that afternoon was too. With the flurries and the overcast, the day seemed hours ahead of itself, and reminded me of that other train ride, so long ago, when we had decided to go back into New York despite the blizzard, the fields and the Connecticut estuaries slipping by us, the snowflakes curling bright against the windows, your head in my lap. I see now, sitting in this dreary-day café, how unmoored I was becoming even so early on, just off the plane, with the onrush of dark and the RER hurtling me toward city where I have none of the things I know to grab on to to keep my mind from wandering. So, of course, the Brahms and the train. And also, I confess, I’m emboldened by the knowledge that whatever I set down here you will never read, that I will never know your thoughts. Such comfort! You see, Daniel, that after all, you have left me safe at last. It was a Thursday, that afternoon when I got in. I deserted the train at Gare du Nord, and, having pushed out with the crowd onto rue de Dunkerque, I was tempted to try to walk it, even with the weather, but I had the bags, and I didn’t want to arrive all soggy and sad and middle-aged in some terrible cold, grand lobby. They were putting me up at the Clairière. Anyway, my day was hardly over; they’d scheduled me for an evening meeting, which I dreaded, if only because Willem would be there, and I was nervous about seeing Willem. So I caught a cab, shards of war news on the radio as we swerved our way through town. In the deserts of Arabia, Western armies were gathering to drive Iraqi legions from Kuwait. From the news accounts emitted from the dashboard, the first pitched skirmishes were being fought right here.
L’Hôtel la Clairière de l’Armistice, when we reached it, was as monstrous as I’d imagined it would be, one of those push-pull places full of servile staff and imposing décor, all this uncomfortable comfort, walnut and crystal and that grotesque white furniture trimmed in gilt that always reminds me of dental work, or naval uniforms. My room wasn’t ready, of course. I dumped my bags on the concierge, and the martinet at the check-in desk (his humility had been honed to a murderous edge) scrutinized my passport and refused my credit card — “Déjà reglé,” he sniffed. Already settled. It was almost as an afterthought (though with a world of forethought devoted to his gesture) that he handed me the message, just as a voice behind me boomed, “Mademoiselle.” I stuffed the envelope into my purse with the luggage receipt.
The accent was clearly Anglo, and I responded with all the mademoisellian coquettishness my fifty years could muster. “Why, sir,” I said, “you flatter me.” I meant it as a quip, but really I was bracing myself. It’s a reflex. Whatever was approaching, I wanted a stance to handle it. Of course, at the same time, I knew exactly who to expect, whose familiar Anglo accent I was hearing, and I turned and we embraced. My first thought was My, he’s prospered! do you remember what a skinny guy Willem used to be? — and then immediately I was reminded of my own prosperity and grew self-conscious. After a few seconds of squeezing the life out of me, he held me out at arm’s length with locked elbows and a hand on each shoulder — why do men of a certain stature think women enjoy being grasped like a lectern? — and gave me the expression: you know, this tight-lipped side glance full of rue and fondness that’s supposed to add up to the gaze of enduring love. “My God, you haven’t changed a bit,” he said, intoning, and I shot him my expression of enduring dismissal, and he said that, well, we could head out whenever I was ready.
I checked myself over in my mind — was my travel attire really presentable? My travel face? — and I heard myself babbling that he really hadn’t needed to pick me up at the hotel, I could easily have caught a cab, that we could leave right away, why not, since I couldn’t check in yet. We stepped out under the porte-cochère and he helped me into the back of a long, dark Mercedes that slid up to the curb and gave the driver a destination. I thought: His first honest sentence. On the way down the boulevard, he ventured another, more quietly. “Thank you for doing this, Matilde.”
“You’re very welcome,” I said, and, after a while, “I don’t call a paid month in Paris much of a sacrifice.”
“It’s an exorbitant amount of time,” he said. “Maybe five weeks, we still don’t know.”
“Well, I told you when you called, you’re not exactly dragging me away from anything.”
He looked at me slightly mystified, as though I had answered a question about something else. I had thought the ride would be a short one; that’s generally how things work in such arrangements, proximity being at a premium. But we headed down the boulevard to the highway and out of the city center into the neighborhoods of some inner banlieue. The traffic, at first, was more clotted even than I remembered it, even for late on a weekday afternoon. Willem leaned over the seatback to inquire. “Les manifestations,” the chauffeur answered — he was an Algerian, Willem would later inform me, whose name was Drôlet — the protests “contre la guerre.”
The snow flurries had abated, and as soon as we escaped the city, the roads cleared of other cars. A small village flashed by, and another and smaller one, and then we were on a winding country avenue passing the walls of enclosed estates, until finally the Mercedes turned up a pea-gravel driveway that led through the lawns of a large old chateau. Former chateau. It was a hospital now. There were no indicators of such, no glaring emergency bay, no Quiet signs lining the road or speed bumps on the drive, and no name on the art-nouveau beveled-glass door, but it was irrefutably a hospital. With a little practice, you can smell them a mile away.
There was a small lobby inside the beveled glass, but no public waiting room and no records window staffed by admitting nurses, only a stocky, efficient, daunting woman in a silk dress and sensible heels sitting behind a table who half stood when the door opened and then relaxed when she saw Willem and nodded us wordlessly toward some double doors. The doors gave a click when she reached beneath the table, and we went through into a hallway.
Inside, things were brighter and more antiseptic, but hardly less sumptuous. Willem felt my gaze on his cheek, or sensed my raised eyebrow, and said — did I imagine he was chuckling a little? — “Come along, you’ll see,” and we caught an elevator up to the top floor, the floor you needed to use a key for the elevator to reach, which Willem produced from his key ring, and then he ushered me down another hallway into a small, book-lined conference study where a dozen or so men were milling about, eating little sandwiches and sipping coffee. As we entered, a quiet fell, and all of them simultaneously moved to put down their plates.
“Hello, gentlemen,” Willem said as we bustled in, and he steered me past the crowd to a man standing out of the light and modestly apart, and introduced us.
“Professor Anselm,” the man said to me, softly. “I’m honored.”
“Mr. Sahran,” I said back, hoping I’d caught the pronunciation right. He was a trim man in a quiet suit, shorter than me and maybe younger, late forties or so, aristocratic in his bearing and with an extraordinary limpid gentleness in his gaze, though it was the sort of gentleness you would never want to cross. I took him to be a consul or envoy — he was one of those men tightly coiled within their composure whom you rarely run into anymore outside the foreign service, but what on earth (I reminded myself) did I know about the foreign service? I couldn’t help feeling that if he was honored, I was obscurely in peril.
“We are very grateful that you are able to take this on,” he said, and his eyes probed mine for an exploratory second. “I trust you had a nice trip? Your accommodations are acceptable?” he asked, and when I answered the rhetorical pleasantry with a rhetorical nod, he answered my answer with a little smile. “Good,” he said, and it was understood that some contract had been efficiently negotiated and signed.
“Well, Dr. Madsen, I leave all this to you.” Sahran shook Willem’s hand, and then mine again, with a slight, quick bow of the head, and left the room, and two other men in cheaper suits left with him. The subsequent hour was a ritual, more or less standard, of putting together a surgical team — the wrinkle being that this team was so very disparate and each of us so very new to the others, except for a couple of the Pakistanis, I guess, who knew each other, and Willem and myself, of course. And of course there were the other anomalies, which were glaring, but I thought I would hold off asking about those until the ride home, when I would have Willem to myself again. Papers were handed out, and introductions were made, names and degrees, but without, I noticed, current affiliations. Willem asked some pathology and peri-care questions and addressed a few hematology concerns to the perfusionist, the man who would run the heart-lung bypass machine, and turned to me when we got to my role in things. Matilde Anselm, I told the group, and trotted out the insta-CV. No one had warned me to edit my history, so I let them have it, or the bones of it, at least, skipping over the unpleasant stuff, the Singleton business, starting with Bryn Mawr undergrad and continuing through post-D at Sloan-Kettering “with post–Doctor Madsen” (no smiles from the group), all the way to head of cardiothoracic anesthesiology at St. Anne’s in New York until a few years ago. Teaching since (I didn’t say since the unpleasant Singleton stuff). Currently on sabbatical.
Willem thanked me and cued up a couple final members and then gave us what amounted to marching orders. “As you see, you are among an exceptional group of professionals,” he said, “but what we’re here to do is nothing more than a routine procedure, albeit in exemplary fashion. We have ten days minimum before the operation, and probably several weeks. But you should be as entirely prepared as if it were happening tomorrow. Whatever you need to do to familiarize yourself with this facility, do it immediately. Dr. Mahlev here is your coordinator. He has schedules for each of you to come in to checklist your equipment and go through your protocols. Whatever you need, ask him. Be thorough. Remember, there is no backup; it’s all on you. This is the last time we will see one another ensemble until we meet over the patient. You’ve each been given a telephone number. You must call that number twice a day, wherever you are, so that you’ll know when you’re needed —”
“No beepers?” I interrupted. “We’re not to be on call?”
“Not yet,” Willem said. “Just be sure to phone. Every morning early, every evening late, without fail. Any other questions, direct them to Dr. Mahlev.”
“But Willem . . .”
“Thank you,” Willem said to the group, and then to me, “Drôlet will take you back to the hotel.”
So I didn’t get to clarify anything with dear Willem on the ride home after all, and out of weariness, I didn’t talk with Drôlet either, though I suspected somehow, as I watched his silhouette against the passing lights, that my driver knew a lot more than I did about what I had gotten myself into.La Clairière was aglitter when we got there, and the pageant of early diners traipsing through the lobby in evening dress and formalwear confirmed my determination to hole up humble and eat in. Some poor lackey tricked out like an organ grinder’s monkey in crimson tunic and braided pillbox hat and dragging a gilded luggage cart led me to my room. It was enormous. At any rate, I couldn’t see a bed from the door when it opened, and that was always enormous enough for me. Then behind the first room came another, and then another, a whole grand suite, which I already felt at sea in long before I bumped into a bedroom.
As I fished in my purse for some change to tip the bellhop, my hand brushed against a soft, sharp-cornered object that my tactile memory recalled from only the briefest acquaintance. How long it seemed since the concierge had handed me the envelope! It gave me a jolt. I dug up some coins, but a voice in my head whispered, Suite!, and even as another voice grumbled, What does the room size have to do with the tip?, I dropped the coins and pulled out a twenty-franc note instead and pushed it into the waiting white glove, which folded it into instant invisibility with the practiced skill of an illusionist. We walked the long walk back to the door, and I locked it behind the departing train of minion and cart. Then, before doing what I knew I must do next, I put down my purse on the dining table and found the phone and ordered up a lovely-sounding filet de poisson grillé, not really because it would be so lovely, along with its lovely tarte aux légumes, but because it was the first thing on the menu. Along with the cheapest glass of whatever wine monsieur might recommend. Then I went into the kitchen and boiled some water and returned with a monogrammed napkin and some green tea steeping in a Spode cup.
What was I thinking while I did this? I wasn’t very hungry, nor the least bit thirsty. As I look back, I imagine that I was setting the scene, commencing an order of service, adorning the altar with chalice and cloth, and I wonder: What did I sense? A portent? Of a sacrifice? Or was I merely heeding the conviction that any messenger who has waited so patiently deserves to be met with ceremony? I settled myself in a dining chair and settled my glasses on my nose and set out my napkin and my saucer and my cup and took a little breath of resolve or resignation, I’m not sure which, before reaching back into the purse.
The envelope was of expensive linen, one of those subtle sizes easy to the hand that you never find in American stationery, and to the touch as crisp and lush as taffeta, embossed with a company name that ended et Associés. So: A law firm? The flap was sealed with a dime-sized daub of bright red wax. Inside was a single sheet, folded once, its message in longhand, the same cursive hand that had penned my name and the words par courrier on the envelope’s face and novembre 1990 at the top of the page.
Ma très distinguée Madame, the note began. I wish to alert you to certain unhappy recent events, and to confer with you about subsequent matters which you may find of importance. Without further elaboration, it requested me to contact, “with due regard for urgency,” a Monsieur E. Delecroix Rouchard, provided a telephone number and an address on rue Delembert in the Seventeenth Arrondissement, and closed with Avec mes plus respecteux hommages, je vous prie, Madame, d’agréer l’expression de ma très haute considération, one of those ornate cordialities (translation: “I’m in no rush, are you?”) that only the French, among the nations, remain silly enough to come up with and pompous enough to pull off. I called the number, but the phone kept ringing with that dreadful flat buzz that is the most awful sound in the daily life of any place on earth, and no one picked up, not even to yell Ne quittez pas! and put me on hold.
I wasn’t surprised. An office where an attorney addressed his own envelopes (Did he melt the wax too? I wondered. Was he himself the courier?) was not likely to be one where staff would still be working at this hour. So I finished my tea and dabbled at my dinner, and took a bath, and retired with a book whose secrets were guarded by my exhaustion, for almost immediately it lay open beside me on the duvet, and I woke after a while to turn off the light, and succumbed back into a dream that must have lasted most of the rest of the night, of swirling snow past a speeding train, a sensation of being unable to understand anything close by, of everything immediate flying past in a frenzy too fleet for me to grasp, while the trees and houses guarding the horizon stayed sharp and clear and precise to the eye, so that there were in the world only two things I was certain of: the feel of your hair beneath my palm, and the horizon, as patient and gradual and slow to pass as a thing remembered, even as it melted into distance and stillness and white.
Meet the Author
Paris Twilight is his first novel.
RUSS RYMER is the author of Genie: A Scientific Tragedy, which became a NOVA television documentary and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory, which was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book of the Year Award and named a New York Times Notable Book. He has contributed articles to The New Yorker, National Geographic, Harper’s, Atlantic, and the New York Times Magazine.
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This book is one of those that grabs you and holds on to you until the very end. I am an avid fiction reader, and what I most enjoy in a good work of fiction is something that gives that rare experience of feeling that you are actually inside the world of the book. Paris Twilight does that, and more. At one point, I was so immersed in the book that when I had to put it down to head out to run some errands, I grabbed an umbrella on my way out the door. It was only once I was downstairs on the sidewalk that I realized it was completely beautiful weather outside--it was in Paris Twilight where rain was falling! But it's more than just the mood and the immersion that captivated me. The thing about this book is that it grabs you and delights you on every level: * The plot is intricately woven such that its complications do not distract from the pull of the story, but rather enhance it. And the mysteries are unfolded in such a way that I didn't feel it was about guessing or "figuring out" what was happening, but more about experiencing it. * The characters are distinct, memorable, and compelling, without become caricatures. Each has his or her own voice in the story, and Matilde as the narrator and central character, reveals them to the reader as she herself discovers who they are. * The settings are so richly described, that I felt I was there. Details about mood, sights, smells, sounds, and weather (see above!) create a sense of immersion into this novel's universe. * The science is credible and engaging. The writing doesn't shy away from its complexity, tying it closely to the characters' own complexity so that regardless of your own level of understanding, its presence makes sense. * And then, my personal favorite--the sentences. Russ Rymer's sentences are beautiful works of art. Over and over again, I found myself relishing their structure, and their pure musicality. There are many, many paragraphs where the rhythm of the writing alone gave me goosebumps. I would say more about the plot, but I don't want to give anything away. What I can say is that you will not regret reading this book.