Read an Excerpt
What I am about to communicate to you is the most astonishing thing, the most surprising, most triumphant, most baffling, most unheard of, most singular, most unbelievable, most unforeseen, biggest, tiniest, rarest, commonest, the most talked about, the most secret up to this day, the most enviable, in fact a thing of which only one example can be found in past ages, and, moreover, that example is a false one; a thing nobody can believe in Paris (how could anyone believe it in Lyons?).
—From Madame de Sévigné to Coulanges, December 1672
Lydie McBride occupied a café table in the Jardin du Palais Royal and thought how fine it was to be an American woman in Paris at the end of the twentieth century. The sun warmed her arms. People strolled along the dry paths, and the silvery dust mingled with the smell of strong coffee. It was one of the first hot spring days. Then something happened—cups clattered on the waiter’s tray, or the breeze shifted, and Lydie thought of home. She felt a keen hankering for it: for her family, for her block in New York City, for the racetrack, for strangers speaking English. “May I borrow your sugar?” someone asked in a low voice.
Lydie jumped. She had just been longing so hard to hear the English language, she wondered for an instant whether she had conjured the sound out of the May air. But then she regained her composure. “Of course,” she said, passing the china bowl to the woman at the next table. She watched her, a tall woman Lydie’s age with dark hair twisted into a chignon, stir two sugar cubes into her coffee. This woman wore red lipstick perfectly; her eyes were hidden behind big sunglasses. Lydie, who never wore much makeup and had the sort of flyaway red hair that always looked uncombed, had the impression of much gold jewelry.
“I need some quick energy,” the woman explained. “I just had a fitting at Chanel—an experience that never fails to take the heart out of me.”
Lydie smiled at the way she made shopping at Chanel sound like torture—somehow Lydie knew that she lived here.
“What brings you to Paris?” the woman asked.
Lydie hesitated, trying to formulate the short version of a complicated answer. “Well, for work. Michael—my husband—is an architect. He’s working on the Louvre, part of an exchange program. And I’m a stylist.”
“A stylist? As in hair?”
Lydie laughed. “No, I work with photographers, doing pieces for magazines and catalogues. I set up the shots. The editor tells me what he wants in a photo layout, and it’s my job to get all the props.”
“I think my husband uses stylists,” the woman said. “He’s in the jewelry business.”
“Yes,” Lydie said, nodding. “I work with jewelers a lot. He’s French?”
“Yes, but we met in America . . .” The woman trailed off, as if she thought the conversation was going on too long or growing too intimate. “I’ll tell you something,” she said. “I met my husband one day, he took me to Guadeloupe the next weekend, and then I enrolled in Berlitz, and then he asked me to marry him. You’ll think I’m crazy, but it all took place in less than five weeks. The French understand, but Americans never do.”
Lydie leaned forward, and she captured the moment, sure as a photograph: the way the sun struck the woman’s hair, the blaze of primroses in a jardiniere behind her head, Richelieu’s palace casting a shadow on the garden. “I don’t think that’s crazy,” Lydie said. “I believe in love at first sight.”
“Well,” the woman said. She checked her watch, a tiny gold one with Chinese figures instead of numerals. Then she looked at the sky. “I should go. I’m running late.”
Now Lydie checked her watch. She had planned to go to the Bibliothèque Nationale, to look up details of seventeenth-century weddings for a piece in Vogue. Then, like the woman, she gazed up. She felt unwilling to leave. The palace against the blue sky looked dark and ancient, as if it had stood there forever. She wanted to stall for time, to prolong this pleasant, casual conversation with another American. “Where are you off to?” she asked after a moment.
“Oh, home,” the woman said. “I told my housekeeper she could go online.”
“Yes. I’m teaching her to use the computer. Didier bought it when personal computers hit Paris in a big way, but it just sits there.”
Lydie regarded the woman more carefully. With her jewelry and clothes and slightly regal bearing, she gave the impression of someone who would want distance between herself and a domestic employee. “Are you training her to do your correspondence?” Lydie asked.
The woman smiled, but the smile seemed distant. “Kelly wants to improve her life. She’s a Filipino, from the provinces outside Manila, and she’s here in Paris illegally. She’s just a little younger than I am—she’s been to college. She shares a place with an amazing number of brothers and sisters. Her goal is to get to the United States.”
“And you want to help her?” Lydie asked, sitting on the edge of her chair.
“Well, it’s practically impossible.”
“My parents immigrated to the United States from Ireland,” Lydie said.
“It’s especially hard for Filipinos,” the woman said, again looking at her watch. She gathered her bags and stood. “Well. Hasn’t this been fun?” she said.
“Maybe . . .” Lydie began.
“We should exchange phone numbers,” the woman said, grinning.
And while Lydie wrote out her name and number on a piece of notepaper, the dark-haired woman held out a vellum calling card, simply engraved, with an address on the Place des Vosges and the name “Patrice d’Origny.”
Walking down the rue des Petits Champs, Lydie felt in no hurry to get to the Bibliothèque Nationale. Even though she had hours of research to do for a photo series that was already a week overdue, she felt like playing hooky. The BBS wheels on a red BMW 750 parked by the curb caught her eye. Nice wheels, Lydie thought. She had spent many childhood Saturdays at her father’s body shop in the Bronx—a cavernous place filled with smells of exhaust and paint, the flare of welding torches, the shrieks of machinery and metal tearing—without seeing many BBS wheels. Her father was the boss but wore blue overalls anyway. He would leave her in the office, separated from the shop by a glass window, coming back every fifteen minutes or so to visit her.
“What happened to that car?” Lydie had asked once, watching another wreck towed in.
“An accident, darling. He hit a tree off the Pelham Parkway, and he must have been drunk, because he knew how to drive.”
“How do you know?” Lydie asked, when what she really wanted to know was what had happened to the man.
“See his wheels?” her father asked, pointing at the car, leaning his head so close to Lydie’s that she caught a whiff of the exhaust that always seemed to cling to his hair and clothes. “They’re BBS. A man doesn’t buy wheels like that if he doesn’t know how to drive.”
To her father, “knowing how to drive” had covered more than mere competence. It was a high compliment and meant the driver was alert behind the wheel, unified with his car and the road, aware of the difference between excellent and ordinary machinery.
Walking away from the red BMW with its high-performance, nonproduction wheels, down the narrow Paris street, Lydie had the urge to drive fast. In America she raced cars for a hobby, but over here she hadn’t had the desire. She had resisted this move to Paris. She had told Michael it was because she didn’t want to leave her family, which now consisted of only Lydie and her mother. But Michael had said no, what Lydie did not want to leave was her family tragedy.
Eight months before Michael accepted the position at the Louvre, Lydie’s father had killed his lover and himself. Margaret Downes. Lydie felt a jolt every time she remembered the name. After forty years of what everyone considered a great marriage, Cornelius Benedict Fallon had fallen in love with another woman. Lydie hadn’t known and Julia claimed, even now, to have had no clue. Lydie knew there must have been clues, and she often felt furious with her mother for not seeing them. Because right up until the time the New York City detectives knocked on her door, Lydie had believed in her mother’s myth of a happy family.
Lydie was her parents’ only child; born relatively late in their marriage, she knew she was beloved. They had raised her to feel confident and live like a daredevil. A favorite story of her father’s was of how Lydie at eight, watching the Olympics on television, had suddenly stood and done a perfect backflip off the back of the sofa. The second time she tried, she broke her collarbone. During high school she took up whitewater kayaking, tutoring children in a neighborhood few of her convent school classmates would even visit, and hitchhiking to Montauk on Saturdays. One day her father let her take an H-production Sprite for a spin. The intensity of concentration required to speed thrilled her, and from then on she thought of racing as a legitimate way to drive a car fast.
Cutting through the Galerie Vivienne, remembering that Bugeye Sprite and her old fearless self, Lydie felt her eyes fill with tears. The emotion was so strong she stopped in front of a wine shop, pretending to regard the window display while she cried. She thought of the car Michael had given her for Christmas, just before the shooting. They had shopped around together, and Lydie had fallen in love with a showroom stock Volvo 740 wagon. Michael had grinned at the idea of his wife racing a station wagon, the car favored by women living in the Litchfield Hills to ferry kids and groceries around Lime Rock. Secretly, he had bought it for her. Lydie closed her eyes, remembering that Christmas morning: in their apartment on West Tenth Street she had opened a small box containing brown leather driving gloves, a map of Connecticut with “Lime Rock” circled in red, and the keys. She hadn’t even driven it since her father died. It sat in Sharon, Connecticut, in a garage behind her crew chief’s house.
Michael had told her about the Louvre position as if he were giving her a gift even greater than the car: the gift of adventure, a year in Paris. But Lydie hadn’t wanted to come. She had wanted to stay in New York; she couldn’t imagine leaving her mother. She couldn’t imagine leaving the scene. But in spite of lacking heart, she couldn’t say no to Michael, who was incredibly excited about the move. And then, the day had come to pack their things into a crate that would cross the Atlantic on a Polish freighter.
Julia had sat on Lydie and Michael’s bed, watching them pack. Lydie knew that although her mother felt abysmally sad at seeing Lydie go, she wouldn’t dream of speaking up. Julia would think that by doing so she would spoil Michael’s happiness. She was plump, especially in the bosom, with soft, curly gray hair and, even then, a perpetually happy expression in her blue eyes. Lydie could hardly bear to look at her that day; she rummaged through a dresser drawer. Coming upon her driving gloves, Lydie slipped them on, flexing the new leather.
“Can’t wait to see you drive at Le Mans,” Michael said. “It’s only about two hours from Paris.”
“I can’t wait,” Lydie said, doubting even then that she would drive in France.
“Oh, you two will have such a ball,” Julia said, grinning. “All the museums and the restaurants. Your aunt Carrie and I spent a weekend in Paris one time. It was lovely.”
“Flying to Paris from Ireland is like taking the Eastern Shuttle to Washington,” Michael said. From his tone Lydie could tell he felt grateful to Julia for her enthusiasm.
“Well, we took the boat, but yes—distances are so different over there. It’s a short trip from Paris to anywhere in Europe. You’ll have a marvelous time.”
“It’ll be great,” Michael said, speaking to Lydie.
She said nothing, but smiled at him. He was trying to assemble a cardboard carton. The sight of her tall husband—a whiz on any basketball court but a klutz when it came to anything remotely mechanical—trying to transform a sheet of corrugated cardboard into a vessel that would actually hold their belongings made Lydie laugh.
“Here, let me,” she said, folding flaps, slapping on the plastic tape without even taking off her gloves.
“What a woman,” Michael said, bending down to kiss her.
“She’s one in a million,” Julia said. “After she won her first race at Watkin’s Glen, her father said she could do anything. Do you remember that nice dinner we all had afterward?”
“Sure,” Lydie said, quivering with the memory. They had drunk champagne, and after dinner her father had bought her a cigar. She could picture her parents perfectly: their proud smiles, her mother’s girlish smile, the absent way her father reached over to touch Julia’s shoulder. It killed Lydie to think Margaret Downes had already brought her car in for its second paint job in six months, that Neil had already fallen in love with her. The happy expression on her father’s face that night, so full of love, had been for Margaret.
Lydie crouched, assembling another carton. Michael sat beside her, pulling the tape out of her hands and holding them tight; he knew what the memory meant to her. Julia said nothing, looking on. She had started to cry but stopped herself. Lydie eased her hands from Michael’s grasp, ripped off a piece of tape, closed a seam. Every crack she taped, every box she built, brought her closer to leaving. And, somehow, the idea of leaving the scene of her father’s death and crime filled her with doom. She felt wild with an abundance of unfinished business.
“A year in Paris,” Julia had said. “I can’t imagine any couple who could enjoy it more than you.”
But it wasn’t working out that way, Lydie thought now, entering the Bibliothèque’s vast courtyard. With their great luck, she had thought they would be the most frivolous pair in Paris. But Michael’s exhilaration had turned to patience; he was waiting for Lydie to get back the spirit he had fallen in love with. So far it hadn’t happened. Since coming to Paris, Lydie felt a gulf widening between herself and Michael, and she couldn’t do a damned thing about it.
Just before a race, Lydie always experienced a vision. In a flash she saw the crash, the rollover, herself paralyzed in a hospital.