Reviewed by Donna Meredith
What could be grander, sweeter, and more delightful than a woman finding—no, recreating— herself in the glamorous, enlightened city of Paris? That is the happy premise behind Juliet Blackwell’s novel, The Paris Key.
But as you might suspect, Genevieve Martin’s journey is marked by obstacles and dark moments. To escape the turmoil of an unraveling marriage, Genevieve flees from California to Paris, in part because she spent her fourteenth summer there, learning the locksmith trade from her Uncle Dave. His recent death has been on her mind, and who better than she to look after his locksmith shop now that he is gone? His daughter has no interest in the dying trade.
But the French bureaucracy, Genevieve is warned repeatedly, is notoriously slow-moving and dysfunctional. She must be persistent, become such a pest that they will finally give in just to get rid of her. She is not supposed to practice the trade until she has the requisite paperwork, but neighbor after neighbor appears, desperate for her services. Through them, she begins to build a network of friends in her new city.
The novel alternates chapters from three viewpoints: Genevieve as the present-day adult, adolescent Genevieve in 1997, and her mother Angela in 1983. The technique creates dramatic irony and suspense as the reader suspects the truth about the past long before Genevieve does.
One delight of reading the novel is savoring philosophy sprinkled throughout, particularly French thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Victor Hugo. Through Genevieve’s eyes, we can share and revel in French history and culture, which linger around every corner like magic. But Genevieve’s own thoughts also add depth to the story. Like her realization that she would be “uncomfortable having people doing” housework for her, that she would feel “compelled to pick up a mop and work beside them.” Or her deeper musings on the nature of happiness:
There were a lot of people who claimed to be happy. Or content, at least. Jason [her husband] found fulfillment in making money and putting together win-win solutions to business deals. Some folks seemed most satisfied when they were stirring up trouble, like the people with whom Genevieve had mingled at the death-penalty protests with her mother, all those years ago. And Berkeley types touted the wisdom of the Buddha, preaching that once a person no longer wanted anything, she would no longer face disappointment. But didn’t that seem like a cop-out?
In the midst of her divorce, Genevieve needs to figure out what, exactly, will make her happy. She is not at all sure she can find that elusive rainbow in Paris because “home held some comfort; knowing what to expect, how to proceed . . . how long would it take an expat in Paris . . . to truly feel at home?”
Locks and keys become powerful symbols as the story unfolds, and the author references them in a multitude of ways from secrets locked away to locks of hair given to a lover to Sartre’s play No Exit, where people are locked in a room and need to “learn the truth in order to set themselves free.” As Genevieve learns about locksmithing from her uncle, she becomes aware of “the magic inherent in a door being locked one moment and unlocked the next.”
The catacombs lying beneath the City of Light play an intriguing role in the plot. They feature prominently in French history, particularly during WWII, and also in Angela’s time in Paris mingling with Basque rebels. As Genevieve unlocks the secrets buried beneath the Parisian homes and streets, she finds truths about herself that shatter everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. Will unlocking those doors free her or imprison her in ways she could never imagine?
This story deserves a place on every bookshelf, not because it is yet another tale of forbidden love and family secrets, though it tells that story well, but because The Paris Key ultimately embodies the enormous power stemming from connection to our fellow humans, the blessing of community. That, Genevieve learns, is the beginning of real happiness.
Juliet Blackwell lives in northern California, but spends as much time as possible in Europe and Latin America. She writes the Witchcraft Mysteries and the Haunted Home Renovation series, as well as the Art Lover’s Mystery series.