The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 21 December 2017

The Only Street in Paris

Life on the Rue des Martyrs

by Elaine Sciolino

Like many large cities, Paris is a collection of neighborhoods, enclaves and villages. Perhaps Paris, more than other cities, is known for this cultural agglomeration. One neighborhood of the rich and snooty will have a more strict cultural code than another. The Rue des Martyrs is one of those looser, more congenial and diverse neighborhoods. It is also among the better preserved from the homogenizing effects of the global corporate onslaught. This is at least in part due to Parisian laws designed to protect the small, finely textured neighborhoods and their often centuries-old small businesses. Still, in the long run, change is inevitable. How many typewriter stores, for example, can one city sustain in the age of electronic pads and smart phones? Now imagine the wonder of an artisan who repairs three-hundred-year-old mercury barometers.

The author of this portrait of the Rue des Martyrs is an American who settled in one of the more elegant Parisian neighborhoods. After a couple years of trying to follow its social rules, she and her family moved to smaller digs off the Rue des Martyrs, on the lower slopes of Montmatre, a street of barely half a mile long, but with a history going back centuries, back even to the martyrdom of Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris. Sciolino is a writer for several newsy publications. She has a straightforward reporter's style of telling us about her new neighborhood. Among its cafes, markets, fishmongers, artisans, booksellers, street people and historical figures, she enjoys an enviable residency within the kind of small scale and elegant Parisian culture that is the envy of the world.

Unlike many such memoirs, this is more a diary of her life and a small history of this street; it is less the expected lyrical meditation on the joys of food and art and the awakening of an American to a slower more personal existence. There are small dramas, to be sure, notes of art, the struggles of small businesses to get by, even in an environment relatively free of the pressures of globalization. It is a portrait of a richly textured Parisian street, one among so many in that city, and in the cosmopolitan cities of the world.

(An eclectic bibliography provided by the author, too, offers a jumping off point for exploring Rue des Martyrs and other Parisian street life.)

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