In her memoir, Scolnik recounts a passionate affair, tested by separation, with a Frenchman.
Scolnik’s narrative begins in 1976 when the 20-year-old Wesleyan student arrived in Paris for a junior year abroad to study flute, French literature, Marxist “Dialectic Thought,” etc. Entranced by Parisian culture but feeling lonely and adrift, she signed up with the amateur chorus of the Orchestre de Paris, where, scanning the bass section, she beheld Luc, an “Adonis-like man” with “a sensitive face radiating quiet intelligence.” After days of gazing, she finally tapped him on the shoulder. Through awkward small talk, car rides, and cafe meetups with the reserved tax lawyer, the two bonded over classical music and succumbed to a torrent of love, sex that felt “deeply metaphysical,” and languorous idylls in her garret. Alas, their love seemed doomed. Luc was married with a 3-year-old son, but, he assured Scolnik, he was separated from his wife, Claire (much of the time, at least), and would divorce her and go to America to work, perhaps. Returning to New England and Wesleyan, Scolnik continued to hope, encouraged by Luc’s besotted letters and a three-week reprise of the affair during her spring break trip to Paris. When Luc announced that he would come to Boston for a summer English course, she rented them an apartment to live in together—and that’s when her blazing ardor got plunged into an ice bath. Luc arrived grumpy and distracted, hated every morsel of American food, and made plain his indifference to Scolnik, even scoffing at her when she badly cut herself. After five days of this treatment, Scolnik “despised him with every cell in [her] body” and left him. She then rushed back a few weeks later to see him—only to be confronted by Claire herself.Scolnik’s saga is, in part, a burning love letter to Paris, written with gorgeous detail. In cafes, she writes, she “began to recognize certain types—elderly French ladies sitting shoulder to shoulder looking out onto the street, their miniature terriers perched on chairs beside them; businessmen in suits nursing tall beers; students smoking cigarettes and writing notes at their espresso-cluttered tables; graying, long-haired intellectuals with scarves, looking important, retired, and committed to café life as a means of keeping the old political discussions alive over their plats du jour.” Concerning her fraught relationship with Luc, she conveys the visceral impact of the couple’s attraction (“it was like touching a power line,” she writes, when her finger accidentally grazed his hand during a concert), while its obsessiveness comes through in excerpts from Luc’s hammy but heartfelt missives. (“My body was knotted, as if, at 1:30 when your plane took off, all the existential anguish that you knew how to appease, surprised me again with more force, more tenacity. Paris seems absurd.”) Scolnik’s shrewd, evocative prose captures the bliss of love, but she’s also entertainingly cleareyed about its petty agonies when it unravels. (“Although I knew that none of our daily trials were my fault, Luc made me feel responsible for them all: that the bus ride into Cambridge was long and hot, that good art films weren’t showing at the right times, that a dead fish was floating in the Boston Harbor, that inexpensive little bistros weren’t materializing when we were hungry.”) The result is a captivating remembrance that treats falling in love and falling out of it with equal honesty.
An engrossing coming-of-age story that wrings hard-won wisdom from giddy romance.