A Delicious Fairy Tale That Takes You to Paris

Kristina Sepetys reviews The Paris Novel by Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl (photo by Michael Singer courtesy of Random House)


Local readers who haunted the old Berkeley Art Museum on Durant Avenue back in the late 1970s may remember Ruth Reichl as a former chef and co-owner of The Swallow, a cafe collective that operated on the museum’s ground floor. A younger set may have gotten to know the Reichl revealed through her best-selling memoirs: Tender at the Bone, Comfort me with Apples, and Garlic and Sapphires. Lots more will recognize her as a cookbook author, former editor in chief of Gourmet magazine, restaurant critic, and winner of many James Beard awards for her journalism, including her recent Lifetime Achievement Award.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the uber-talented Ruth Reichl is also a novelist. Her latest, The Paris Novel (Random House, 2024) tells the story of Stella, a recent Vassar graduate working as a copy editor in New York who takes a life-changing trip to the City of Lights.

Stella’s mother, a difficult woman from whom Stella is estranged, dies, leaving Stella a small inheritance and instructions to go to Paris. The trip isn’t the most obvious move for Stella, a timid and repressed young woman. But she honors her mother’s wishes. Once settled, she becomes immersed in the art, literary, fashion, and culinary worlds of Paris circa early 1980s.

Stella’s magic carpet ride begins with a Dior dress in a vintage clothing shop. For the first time in her life Stella does something impulsive and buys the dress, which comes infused with the scent of apricots and vanilla and the hint of a history. The purchase marks the start of adventures and transformations that lead to a chance meeting with the delightful, elderly Jules, a wealthy art collector who knew Picasso and Brancusi. Jules introduces Stella to Parisian culture and cuisine, helping her discover her innate talent for taste and cooking.

As Stella opens up, so too do her experiences, like living as a “Tumbleweed” at the beloved Shakespeare and Company bookstore or uncovering a mystery involving Victorine, the model in Édouard Manet’s painting, “Olympia.” (Reichl first learned about Victorine while studying art history in graduate school and has long been captivated by her story.)

Of course, this being the inimitable Ruth Reichl, the descriptions of the meals and ingredients are marvelous, and they are taken from notes from meals she enjoyed at restaurants like L’Esperance, Les Deux Magots, and Troigros, which appear in the novel.  A good example is Stella’s first encounter with oysters, washed down with a “deeply, shockingly cold” Chablis:

“A ruffle of black encircled each opalescent heart; she thought of orchids. Triangles of lemons sat on the ice, and she picked one up and squeezed it, inhaling the prickly aroma. Then she reached for an oyster, tipped her head, and tossed it back. The oyster was cool and slippery, the flavor so briny it was like diving into the ocean.”

The novel is filled with real life characters—stars in the firmament of Parisian life in those years—like Richard Olney, an American painter and cook known for his French cookbooks. We read how a certain chef “sliced a raw black truffle for Richard Olney, spread it with butter, sprinkled it with salt, and fed it to him with his fingers.”

Not everything in the story goes down so easily. A passage early in the novel details a molestation Stella endures as a young girl, which may be disturbing to some readers expecting all lightness, croissants, and warm bowls of cafe au lait (though there’s plenty of that). Ditto on a description, accurately if somewhat off-putting-ly rendered, of Stella consuming a classic French delicacy: a tiny bird (ortolan bunting) drowned in Armagnac and then eaten whole in its crunchy entirety. I also found an odd note in Reichl’s repeated description of the “ugly-beautiful” face of James Baldwin, who makes a brief appearance during Stella’s time at Shakespeare and Company.

But otherwise, it’s a charming book, an easy, breezy read that’s perfect for an escapist dip into some enchanting lore of Paris. And while the too-perfect-to-be-true story may seem improbable—a fairy tale of sorts—Reichl is such a good storyteller that it’s easy to suspend disbelief and swallow up her whole delicious confection of a tale.


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