Adam Gopnik and his wife Martha moved to Paris with their infant son, Luke, in the late 1990s. The two New Yorkers had had a lifelong fascination with Paris and spent some time there before, and decided it would be a good place to spend their son’s preschool years. Paris to the Moon consists of the columns Gopnik wrote for the New Yorker during their years in France, along with some more personal reflections. It’s sort of a cross between a memoir and travel-writing.
Gopnik spends a fair bit of time in the introduction of the book apologizing for how much he talks about his personal experience as the parent of a young child in Paris. I thought this was funny because, for my money, I’d have liked the book to have included a lot more of that personal, family perspective. My favourite parts of the book were where he talked about buying Christmas tree lights in Paris, or taking Luke to the park or swimming pool. The family-memoir aspects of the book were far more interesting to me than Gopnik’s reflections on French politics or fine dining in Paris. These were all too often inflated with philosophical-sounding generalizations about Parisians and New Yorkers, about the difference between American life and French life, which, when you peeled away the intellectual language, boiled down to nothing more than sweeping generalizations.
If there’s a big flaw in Gopnik’s work this is it: he seems, to me, to be trying too hard to find universal and general significance in his personal experience, to draw large conclusions about the nature of life in one country versus another, and quite often the evidence — one man’s experience, simply doesn’t support the generalizations. This is most vividly illustrated in the otherwise lovely chapter about taking Luke to the swimming pool at a fancy hotel, where they meet up with one of Luke’s preschool friends and her Australian au pair. Gopnik observes that the Australian girl isn’t very impressed by the fancy pool, and assumes that, “Australians are like that.” Really? You can tell what Australians are like, from one poolside conversation with one Australian teenager? Wow.The beauty of the best memoirs, I think, is that they don’t seek to state broad, universal truths but rather focus on the particulars of one person’s life experience. Paris to the Moon is at its best — entertaining and readable — when Gopnik is talking about particulars, about the things he and his family did, saw and talked about in Paris. Skip lightly over the sweeping generalizations, and you’ll have a fine time with this book.