Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
The Strays of Paris, which the much-loved author Jane Smiley has written, brings an unlikely tale of community, friendship and the value of kindness in the heart of one of the most sophisticated of cities, Paris.
It begins when Paras, short for Perestroika, nudges the door of her stall and discovers it is unlatched. She is a curious young filly, bred for racing on the illustrious courses of Paris. Seizing the opportunity, she strolls out and decides to explore the wider world.
In the heart of Paris, she meets other lonely animals: Frida, a dog, Raoul a raven and Sid and Nancy, two ducks. They all linger in the grassy areas in the proximity of the Champs de Mars and the Eiffel Tower.
Frida survives by cleverly acquiring food from Jerome in the nearby vegetable shop. She manages this by taking money found in a purse, which she gives to Jerome. She shares it with her comrades. Paras befriends Anais who has a nearby patisserie. Its rolls and oats are delicious!
With the surrounding grass and water in the Seine, the friends survive for the months of Autumn and into the winter. They are constantly advised and encouraged by the sage pronouncements of Raoul. He is highly intelligent with an admirable command of language more reminiscent of the 19th century.
Life there changes when a little boy, Etienne, befriends Paras. The child lives in a mansion and cares for his great grandmother. Conveniently, she is both deaf and blind, and so is unaware when the horse moves into her home to weather the freezing winter outdoors. Tenants, living in the walls, are a family of rats, led by Conrad and Kurt.
The book quite charmingly depicts the various personalities of the animals. Paras is naive and not very clever. Frida is street wise, having lived with her former owner, a busker. She is able to manipulate humans she targets. Raoul is a very knowledgeable raven, with a superior attitude but impressed when he learns that ducks navigate long flights by using the earth’s magnetic field.
The Strays of Paris is a blend of recognising animals’ limits yet an ability to acquire necessities. They all are able to communicate although they are different species. This is of great benefit to survival which many humans seem not to have practised to date!
This gentle reminder of our failings is softened by humour. Sid, the drake, is prone to anxiety attacks. Life improves for him after counselling and confronting his childhood trauma.
Meanwhile, Madame Mornay, Etienne’s relation, now 97, is reading Proust’s masterpiece, and has reached the last volume after a lifetime’s devoted attempt.
A happy ending exceeds all expectations. Delphine, Paras’ trainer, finds all the animals living with Etienne. His great grandmother had died and he is at the mercy of the authorities. However, he is adopted by Delphine and the other animals join him to live lives of contentment in the outskirts of Paris.
The Strays of Paris suspends reality, with the animals assuming anthropomorphic personalities.
It is remote from the dramas of the everyday and presents a harmony and tolerance that is close to ideal. Well written and endearing, it is a delightful indulgence. The sophisticated aspects of Parisian life, such as the boundless selection of fine cheeses, inclines to adult appeal; but its lack of violence and a cast of loveable characters, especially the animals, make it a book that could be loved by a variety of ages.
The Strays of Paris
by Jane Smiley
ISBN 978 1529 05298 5
$32.99; 265 pages