Friday, May 3, 2013

Review: MISSION TO PARIS by Alan Furst

mission to paris cover

An Austrian-born Hollywood star named Frederic Stahl is traded to a movie studio in Paris to make a film called Après le Guerre. This proves to be ironic, seeing as how it's 1938 and a second World War is clearly on the horizon and a-comin' this way. Since he's famous (Nazis love movies, as we all know from Inglourious Basterds) and Austria is now officially part of Nazi Germany, Frederic is courted by several Nazis in Paris, becoming gradually more annoyed with their bullying tactics until he decides to help the American embassy spy on them. When the Nazis find out, they go from intimidation to outright threats. Will Frederic and his German émigré girlfriend get out of Europe alive AND manage to finish filming their movie? Either way, the show must go on!

I picked up Mission to Paris after several people recommended Alan Furst to me in my post about spy novels that have romantic subplots. The novel really has everything: Paris. Hollywood glamor. Movie-making. Spies. Kristallnacht. Snow-bound European castles with doughty, eccentric counts. Romance. And let's not forget those insensitive Nazis!

So how could I not like it, right? And I did like it. As a historical novel, Mission to Paris is 100% awesome. I really felt like I was in pre-War Paris: dining at Maxim's, noshing on Lebanese food, living in a relatively constant state of paranoia while everyone carries on with their daily business. I actually learned quite a bit about World War Two and how the Nazis overthrew the French government, and I was not expecting this novel to be historically illuminating in the least, so that was neat. I also loved the details Furst included about the process of getting a movie made and how precarious and drawn-out production is.

I also loved Stahl, who manages to embody Old Hollywood Glamor and the practical side of acting and being well-known all at the same time. He's living the life, but he doesn't let it inflate his ego. I might have found this a bit unbelievable, actually, but he is the hero of the novel.

Furst's writing style is worth a mention, as well—I found it to be quite stylized and at first difficult to get into. But that quickly passed and I appreciated how his writing style helped to make Mission to Paris a world unto itself.

So yes, I liked Mission to Paris and I think it's a good book. But I didn't love it, and I had trouble connecting with it on any level except intellectually. First of all, the story is very steady and the climaxes aren't moments of super-high tension, more like: And then this happened. Secondly, this is a very male-centric book. It would not pass the Bechdel Test. And even though I liked the central male character, I was BOTHERED. I admit I loved the romance when it first showed up about halfway through the book, but it was difficult to maintain an emotional engagement with that part of the story when woman z didn't seem to be appreciably different from casual sex partners x and y.

Still, I think I enjoyed this book more than my prejudice against novels where the male lead casually thinks, "He wanted to fuck her," will allow me to admit to myself (I'm looking at you, Casino Royale). I do plan on reading more books by Furst in the future—I would love to check out Spies of Warsaw, which was adapted into a mini-series with David Tenant and which I also found very one-note until I rewatched it out of boredom and was suddenly like "BEST SHOW EVER SO INTO." So maybe I should just reread Mission to Paris and see if I don't appreciate it more on the second go-around.

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