Christine Sneed, author of the award-winning Little Known Facts, brings Paris to life in her latest novel, Paris, He Said, about a young woman who falls for an older man.
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Meet Jayne Marks. Her life in Manhattan is tough as she works at two soul-destroying jobs to pay the bills. Her passion is to be a painter but her ambition is stifled by the daily struggle for survival in the fast-paced metropolis.
Meet Laurent Moller. He’s a Parisian art lover with two galleries to his name, one in New York and one in his hometown.
Jayne and Laurent meet by chance and become enraptured with each other. It’s not hard for Jayne to take up Laurent’s offer to give up her Manhattan life, including her boyfriend, and move to Paris with him.
But is the opportunity to be with this powerful man as alluring as it first appears?
We talked to Christine Sneed about the nature of her novel, living in a city made for pleasure and her experience of the French attitude to l’amour.
Reader’s Digest: Your novel has been described as a story about love and deception. How would you define it?
Christine Sneed: I think of it as a coming-of-age story, of a kind, though the main character, Jayne Marks, is 30 when the novel begins.
It is also about artistic ambition, and the internal conflicts that Jayne experiences in relation to what she thinks she deserves in life, and from other people, specifically, Laurent Moller, who is her lover and eventual benefactor.
RD: Tell us about Jayne and Laurent. How do these two very different individuals come together?
CS: They meet in New York City, where Laurent is living for a few months while launching an art gallery that is the U.S. counterpart to one he already owns and operates with a business partner in Paris.
Jayne is working two uninteresting and unprofitable jobs, eight years post-university, in order to pay the bills in Manhattan.
She has talent as a painter but doesn’t have the self-confidence (or much time) to pursue a career as an artist. They meet one evening when Jayne attends the inaugural show at Laurent’s New York gallery.
RD: What are they looking for in each other?
CS: Initially, they are both looking for someone to pass some pleasant hours with. Jayne eventually believes herself to be in love, and Laurent, who is over 20 years older, is certainly smitten with her youth and prettiness, along with her knowledge of and interest in fine art.
Image via New City Lit
RD: The city of Paris is central to their relationship
CS: Paris has always interested me as a place that many people (myself included) idealize. I wanted to see if could write about Paris in a way that showed my admiration for its beauty and glamour, but also dramatize what it would be like to live there as a foreigner (in this case, a young American woman).
Jayne has a privileged life in Paris, for sure, but I nonetheless wanted to see if I could adequately describe the experience of the day-to-day from the point of view of an expat whose life there might go on indefinitely rather than as a tourist or a study-abroad student.
RD: Jayne loves Paris because “there’s never any shortage of interesting things to look at”. What does Paris have that makes it so unique?
CS: Like many people, I’d have to say that I’m Francophile. I love, simply, that Paris is French, that you hear French spoken and that storied monuments or buildings – Sacré Coeur or the Eiffel Tower or the Hotel des Invalides – mythical figures, in a sense – are visible from almost any vantage point in the city.
I was a French major in college and studied in Strasbourg, but during that year, I visited Paris several times and have gone back several more times since my year abroad. I love visiting New York too, but in Paris, there’s a different feeling in the air; it’s such an ancient city, with its culture and history having influences the rest of the world’s for many centuries.
To think that it has survived for so long—through the Crusades and through all the terribly destructive wars of more recent memory—is almost unfathomable. But there it is, the Seine serenely flowing through its centre.
RD: “You should not come to Paris if you have no talent for pleasure” says Laurent. Explain.
CS: Paris is a place where I travel to eat well and shop in stores that offer so many beautiful, artisanal objects to admire, not to mention beautiful people and art and parks to admire too.
In Laurent’s case, he thinks of Paris as a place for assignations, for trysts, and for discovering artists and making their careers. It is also his home, and he knows how to enjoy himself there.
RD: Jayne has a curious relationship with Laurent’s daughter, Jeanne-Lucie
CS: In a previous draft of this novel, they were not friendly, but as I did the first of several rewrites, I realized that I wanted to defy stereotype and give Laurent reason to be anxious about their alliance.
It was more interesting to me as a writer to have them become friends, and to do what I could to make this relationship plausible, than to resort to the more expected trope of having them at odds with each other.
I’ll leave the jealous tension to Jayne and Laurent’s ex-wife (who is also Jeanne-Lucie’s mother).
Image via New City Lit
RD: The book is divided into sections written from Jayne’s and Laurent’s points-of-view. What are you hoping to achieve with this structure?
CS: Mostly, I wanted Laurent to be able to explain himself; I think it might have otherwise been easy to write him off as a cad and an unapologetic womanizer.
I also wanted to have the chance to let Jayne speak directly in first-person (in the final section). But I wrote the first section of the novel in third-person because I like the detachment that third-person offers.
RD: Laurent isn’t overtly political and yet he’s committed to helping those in need and “admires people who speak loudly against injustice”
CS: Kindness and a willingness to share his material wealth is part of his character, but he’s also frank about his intention to pursue pleasure.
He isn’t a hedonist, but he isn’t interested in denying himself the opportunity to take a beautiful lover (even if he already has one) if such a situation presents itself.
He realizes that life is relatively short, and he doesn’t wish to go to his deathbed regretting the chances he didn’t take.
RD: Laurent has an honest attitude to parenthood. He is devoted to his children and yet he tells Jayne “you can love the child, but not the fact that you are a parent”
CS: From what I’ve noticed while observing the lives of my friends who are parents, most of them do wish that they had more time to themselves—either to relax and/or focus on their creative interests, especially when their children are very young.
A few of them have even said that they aren’t sure they’d have had babies if they’d known just how much work being a good parent requires. I think Laurent values his independence as much as anything, and this is, at heart, what he’s addressing.
Parenthood is a job you can’t really take a vacation from, at least not until your children are grown and out of the house (and are staying out of trouble, supporting themselves.)
Image via Chicago Tribune
RD: Are French men so very different from British or American men?
CS: In some ways, I think so. Tangentially, there doesn’t appear to be as much media attention paid to political sex scandals in France, from what I can tell, as there is in the U.S.
I’ve had only limited experience dating Frenchmen, but I noticed that my long-ago French boyfriend didn’t seem as concerned with projecting a “macho” attitude, not in the way that American men often seem to be.
Metrosexuality is now a commonplace, but at the time I was dating Yves, it wasn’t yet much in parlance, but I think I could have described him as metrosexual. He paid attention to his toilette; he dressed with care. He wasn’t worried that other men would think him effeminate. I admired this but also wasn’t quite used to it.
RD: According to Laurent Jayne often asks him: what is the point of any life? Laurent ponders the answers in his head. Christine, what is the point of any life?
CS: I’d have to go with to be kind, to make things here less difficult and painful for each other.
I think that kindness is undervalued as a virtue and as a daily necessity in our often needlessly hectic and exhausting (and sometimes adversarial) lives.
RD: “Men regret the chances they’ve missed, whereas women regret the ones they took that did not turn out so well.” Is this true of Jayne and Laurent’s relationship?
CS: Laurent doesn’t think he should short change himself with sexual opportunities whereas Jayne is more circumspect about offering up her favours. By the end of the novel, however, Jayne has a better understanding of Laurent’s point of view, and I’d say that to some extent, she adopts it. She doesn’t wish to live with many regrets either.
RD: Which books are you currently reading?
CS: The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. One other: Gioia Diliberto’s book about Diane von Furstenberg—A Life Unwrapped.
Feature image via Chicago Tribune