Lita del Cielo's much anticipated year in Paris begins with a dark omen:
"Princess Diana had died while I was on the night flight from Newark to Paris. The taxi driver tossed Le Figaro with the headline and picture of the tunnel crash across my lap. ... now that was just a story people would tell, and instead of happily ever after, it would be And the princess and her lover died together in Paris. The End."
Lita, however, is not a young woman who imagines herself a princess, much less a tragic figure. The narrator of Patricia Engel's engaging debut novel, It's Not Love, It's Just Paris, is, at age 20, both wiser than her years and "a social novice." She's the smart, ambitious daughter of a pair of Colombians who started life as abandoned children, fell in love, emigrated to the United States and built a global food business from scratch, as well as a warm, expansive family.
Fresh from college graduation with the aim of becoming a diplomat, Lita is embarking on a year in Paris, where she has secured a hard-to-come-by spot at the House of Stars, a grand townhouse on the Rue du Bac. Its aged but glamorous owner, Seraphine, rents out her many rooms to a multinational array of young women who are ostensibly pursuing their educations (and some actually do) but, as Seraphine observes, are really looking for love, or at least lust.
At first the current tenants give Lita a hard time, dissing her practical wardrobe and her "jungle face." But she soon fits in, since they're all from similar social strata — not bluebloods but "greenbloods," the daughters of families whose money is bountiful but brand new, from Saira, sweet scion of a brutal African dictator, to Mirabel, a third-generation artist whose parents are successful American painters famous for dressing like identical mimes.
The first part of the novel focuses on Lita's relationships with the other "stars," and it's an entertaining, honest look at young women enjoying the adventurous years of their lives. They sleep in turn with the waiters at their favorite Italian restaurant, then compare notes on the men's prowess in the sack. The house's longest-standing tenant, tempestuous Tarentina, "spoke of sex as openly as sport or philosophy, with proclamations that the greatest moment of the act isn't the orgasm but the five seconds before, and she wanted to live her life that way, on the verge of being satisfied."
Although she resists the idea, Lita does fall in love, hard. During a predawn trek home with friends after partying, she meets Cato, "in the family of handsome, but askew, unkempt." His hair looks like he cut it himself, she thinks, "while he was driving or frying eggs at the same time."
She is smitten at first sight, and so is he, and it's not a good thing. He carefully doesn't tell her anything about himself; she discovers that his mother died in a car crash when he was a boy, but his father is very much alive. Antoine de Manou is a right-wing politician who has "his own political party with the main objective of putting walls around the country to keep out my kind." Seraphine calls Antoine "the worst of France . . . (he) hates all foreigners indiscriminately," and she counsels Lita to forget his son.
Not a chance, but their love story plays out in unpredictable and touching ways. Engel, who lives in Miami, displayed a skillful touch with similar material in her acclaimed short story collection, Vida, published in 2010.
In It's Not Love, It's Just Paris, her characters are just as warm, quirky and intelligently observed. A bonus is her wonderful evocation of Paris — if you haven't been lucky enough to spend a year learning to love that glorious city (or if you have and want a vivid reminder), this bright and charming novel is the next best thing to a visit.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.