PARIS, city of the senses, has long been synonymous with romance. It is undeniably this connection that Toronto's C.S. Richardson draws upon in this literary novel.
As with his 2007 debut, The End of the Alphabet, about a couple travelling around the world after the husband learns he has one month to live, Richardson sets up an unlikely premise and follows it through to its natural conclusion.
In The Emperor of Paris, it's the romance of Octavio and Isabeau, yet another take on the "opposites attract" cliché -- he's an illiterate baker, she's a shy bookworm and restorer of paintings at the Louvre -- and yet the novel is still, for the most part, a surprisingly enjoyable and absorbing read.
In many ways, this is a work in the same vein as the magical realist novels of Gabriel Garcia Márquez. But Richardson tempers the more fantastical elements of his own novel with a candid examination of life during wartime in turn-of-the-century Paris.
Still, The Emperor of Paris is a metaphorical feast for the senses, each sentence offering up some little detail -- a richly hued peacock feather, a dash of raspberry jam -- to linger over and savour.
The novel avoids the easy temptation of using the inherently romantic atmosphere of Paris as a crutch, instead allowing the city's ambience to subtly frame the story, preserving the narrative's dramatic heft in the process.
Richardson, a book designer with Random House in his day job, populates his story with a variety of memorable figures, including Octavio's hopeful yet long-suffering mother, a blind pianist and a fastidious dressmaker.
Many of these characters could easily occupy centre stage in their own short story or novella. This rich tapestry of personalities fortunately makes up for the fact that the novel's main protagonists do not seem equally as captivating.
Given the inevitability of their meeting and falling in love, the duo frequently appears destined to carry the plot rather than be as resonant as the complex, full-bodied characters that surround them.
The novel's structure, in which plot is conveyed via a series of brief vignettes, is meant to build suspense, but no matter the quality of Richardson's prose, anticipation soon turns to frustration as the lovers' game of cat-and-mouse seems to go on too long.
As it winds its way towards its final tableau, The Emperor of Paris treads a delicate balance between charm and cliché -- the titular fable, about a young boy who can summon birds, feels too whimsical -- but even this tension can arguably be seen as highlighting the novel's central theme: that art, particularly literature, is a necessary reprieve from the doubt and anxiety that underscore our existence.
Paul McCulloch is a philosophy student at the University of Winnipeg.
The Emperor of Paris
By C.S. Richardson
Doubleday, 278 pages, $25