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Lost & Found: Janet Fitch on Samantha Dunn
Samantha Dunn’s Failing Paris is the book I’ve been buying every deserving reader I know for the past year. I’ve had to, because the only way you can buy it is online from its eccentric London publisher, The Toby Press. How can such a brilliant book be lost virtually from the moment it is published? Easy. How can an author promote a book that is unavailable in any bookstore? Do readings at Circuit City?
Yet despite the obstacles, this obscure first novel was nominated for the PEN/West Fiction Award in 2000.
The novel takes place during a week in the life of Sabine Wilcox, an American exchange student to Paris who has dropped out of her program – more exactly, the week before her interview for an abortion and the abortion itself. (“L’avortement, which means the failure, the plans which have fallen through.”) Sabine, the illegitimate daughter of a New Mexico saloon owner, has always dreamed of speaking French and coming to Paris as the means of becoming someone other than herself, someone better, a sophisticated woman safely ensconced in the bosom of a certifiably great civilization.
But what she learns in her stay in Paris is that one loses parts of oneself in the translation from one culture to another, as well as gaining a new persona. The resulting alienation from self is underscored by Dunn’s risky but exquisitely apt use of the second person in Sabine’s narration as she describes herself and her life as a Parisian.
“That’s how it is,” the book begins, as the protagonist waits in the Hospital Saint-Louis for her psychological examination for the abortion. “It’s as if I’m watching you stare at the lines nom, prenom, on which have been typed Wilcox, Sabine, fingering the edge of your student card…You are gripping that card because you might not recognize your own name when it’s called.”
Sabine does not know who the father of the child might be:
…the joke was on you, memorizing dead French poets, in your bedroom parroting cassettes of absurd conversations you would never have about the weather and the character of others…This in your house with aluminum siding that doesn’t even pretend to be wood grain, with its tears in the screened-in porch, red caliche earth, pecan trees rooted deeply in their rows, the interstate’s whining rubber never far off. Why you rode your horse bareback across the pasture to the French teacher’s house during school breaks, the old maid with yellow barrettes in her black hair, an au pair thirty years ago but she gave you all she knew.
Yet despite your diligence, when you arrived you were so far out of your element you felt the way the drowning must feel, struggling and choking and the flood of what’s all around coming in too fast. So to make your way, you used skin like currency across crisp cotton sheets, the attention of men so much easier, the only ones who have anything to gain by talking to foreign girls. It was all in trade for the ease of saying exactly what you mean, to have language without seams. At this moment you are doing the conversion, realizing the rate of exchange.
A book about failure, avortement, alienation in both the psychological and geographic senses, and the need to recapture the authentic self, Failing Paris is worth reading just for its miraculous prose. Sentence by sentence, this is language as supple as a strap of kid leather, and as sharp as its lash.