'It's Not Love, It's Just Paris' by Patricia Engel Defies Clichés
It takes a particularly gifted writer to take a frequently used premise and craft something new. Picking up It's Not Love, It's Paris and glancing at the jacket, I projected clichés about a young girl going to Paris to find herself, and falling in love with a charming Frenchman with whom she has romantic adventures that help her uncover her future destiny. Without reading any reviews or plot summaries (going in blind, as we advocate here) I dug in — and found myself pleased that It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris continually defied the overwrought.
Immediately enthralling was Engel's masterfully crafted, intelligent use of language to create a vivid setting of Paris. The next best thing to physically visiting the city is reading Engel’s descriptions of it, which spring to life in text:
Come to think of it, with the annoyance of travel, immersion in Engel’s prose may be the better option of the two.
Engel's characters are the other strength of the novel. The protagonist, Lita del Cielo, was a refreshing and thoughtful character. She is the daughter of two Colombian orphans who arrive in America with nothing, and become the largest Latin food distributors in America. Lita reminisces on her family often:
Lita's race is brought up most often by strangers, and rarely is a subject on which she personally ruminates. Her family’s immigrant heritage was initially more important to her parents than to Lita, who considers herself simply American. Although her background is an important facet of her identity, Lita is more often described by her characteristics: shy, an awkward flirt, thoughtful, sometimes self-centered, and guarded — above all, wonderfully human. Engel creates in Lita a developed and rich character with whom even the greatest extrovert will feel kinship. I enjoyed listening in on Lita's eloquent thoughts:
Engel crafts an equally unique character in Lita’s love interest, Cato. Although Cato feels thin in some sections, he is not at all the charming Frenchman expected of 'girl goes to Paris' stories. Instead, Cato is the relatively unknown son of a notorious right-wing politician, and suffers from constant illness. When Lita first encounters Cato, she thinks:
Rather than thrilling her with charming love declarations or poetry, most of their time together is spent in compatible silence. Lita’s housemates, a group of wealthy, relatively silly girls, with more stereotypical love interests create a foil to Cato. The girls have little faith in Lita and Cato's relationship and delight in giving her advice on her love life:
It's Not Love, It's Just Paris goes beyond an international coming-of-age story, and includes thoughtful thematic elements throughout the novel. Engel touches on Lita's immigrant heritage, her journey of self-discovery, Cato's search to not be defined by his father, and the clash between the stately elegance of old Paris and the seductive Paris belonging to the International, newly-wealthy elite. It, unexpectedly, leaves the reader with plenty on which ruminate.