A Sugary Bonbon of a Novel From a Legendary Foodie

THE PARIS NOVEL, by Ruth Reichl

Stella St. Vincent’s estranged mother dies and leaves her with an unusual bequest: She is to take her modest inheritance and go to Paris.

It’s not an obvious recipe for success, but it does make for an enticing narrative prompt. The heroine of Ruth Reichl’s “The Paris Novel” is not one for impulsive jaunts; her existence is rigidly ordered, a response to the tumult of a traumatic childhood — including episodes of sexual abuse that Reichl narrates in unexpected detail early in the novel. Still, Stella remains a dutiful daughter. Her boss at a small press encourages her to take the trip. She goes.

Stella arrives in 1980s France friendless and with almost no experience of gratification beyond that of a well-placed comma. No romance, no indulgence; she subsists on coffee, toast and boiled eggs in New York and cheap protein in Paris. “Pleasure,” Reichl writes, “was not part of her program.”

After a few weeks of old habits and dismal meals, Stella stumbles into a vintage store where she slips into a Dior dress. Like Cinderella, she cuts a deal: The imperious shopkeeper gets to dictate where Stella should go and what she should eat when she gets there. In exchange, Stella can be someone else for a night and return the dress at no cost the next morning.

Ever the rule-follower, she heads to the iconic Les Deux Magots as instructed, where an old art collector zeros in on her — and the dress. From there, the plot unfurls like a marathon tasting menu.

A former restaurant critic and magazine editor whose debut memoir, “Tender at the Bone,”remains one of the most piquant and delectable of the genre, Reichl peoples her new novel with giants of the Parisian food scene, including Richard Olney and Alain Passard. Their appearances provide a welcome hit of spice, balancing out a sequence of events so rich that I sometimes wondered whether I wanted to gobble the rest of the book down or push it aside, stuffed.

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