Mary Bly's mother, Carol, died of ovarian cancer just two weeks before Mary herself learned that she had breast cancer. There is nothing like grief and a strong whiff of mortality to shake you to the core, and once Bly had completed her course of treatment, she up and moved to Paris.
It wasn't quite that simple, of course -- there was the house in New Jersey to sell, and sabbaticals to arrange (she and her husband, Alessandro, are both academics) and schools to find for their two children.
But soon enough, there they were, ensconced for a year in a ninth- arrondissement apartment that was "elegant in the way of a Chanel coat found in an attic trunk: worn around the edges but beautifully designed."
Her ambitious plan had been to write four books (Bly is a Shakespeare expert, and also the author of romance novels published under the pseudonym Eloisa James), but in the end she didn't -- she simply lived.
"Paris in Love" is a charming, funny and poignant memoir in which not much happens -- they eat wonderful food (and not-wonderful food); they walk through Paris in the rain, in the night, in the daytime, in the snow; the children struggle at school, and then succeed; Bly admires the fashions and the shop windows and notices homeless people and thinks, a lot, about her parents, Minnesota writers Robert Bly and Carol Bly.
Most of the book springs from her Facebook status updates from that year, and never were there more poetic and vivid updates. Bly notices everything -- pale brown eggs in the gourmet section of Le Bon Marché; music pouring forth from the conservatory down their street; a "dreamy dark pink" bag carried by a woman in the Métro. Much reminds her of her childhood on the farm in Madison, Minn., her parents' difficult divorce when Mary was 16, and Carol's death in 2007, and these memories become the richest parts of the book.
Window-shopping at Nina Ricci brings to mind Christmas ornaments she made as a girl; crying over a sad book is really crying about her mother: "I wake thinking of her. I wish I could call her. I will always want her arms around me."
Glimpses into the now-famous Bly farmhouse are riveting. They were so poor that Carol Bly dressed her daughters in frocks made from the dining-room curtains, but she also taught her children exquisite manners, "instructing us in the mysteries of a table set with family silver, which she insisted on using at every meal."
Robert Bly was responsible for the children's summer lunches: "Dad's repertoire was not large: scrambled eggs, spaghetti, applesauce -- and tongue. ... A hunk of tongue always seemed to be on the kitchen counter, labeled 'lunch.'"
Late in the book, Robert Bly sends her a poem he had published in the New Yorker. He has her Paris address correct, but he neglected to write her name on the envelope, a detail that fills her with apprehension. "My beloved father is losing his memory," she writes. "I am so afraid of the day when there are no more poems, or letters."
But the poetry will live on through Mary Bly, and in her poignant book, steeped in Paris and suffused with love.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune books editor.