An American in Paris, and royally so
THOSE who have long savored the novelistic descriptions in Adam Gopnik’s essays and nonfiction -- collected in the bestselling “Paris to the Moon” -- may be shocked to learn that the acclaimed New Yorker writer has finally turned his hand to a novel.
Even more surprising, Gopnik’s first foray into the realm of fiction is a delightfully dark fairy tale aimed at the 10-and-up set, that notoriously fussy group of readers known by the dubious title of “tweens.” And although it would be wrong to term “The King in the Window” a Gallic version of Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling fans will surely find a lot to love about the adventures that charming young Oliver Parker experiences in a spooky wintertime Paris.
The son of doting but self-absorbed expatriates, 12-year-old Oliver is largely on his own as he navigates the rocky terrain of life as an American boy immersed in the rigorous French school system. While his friends back home are skateboarding and downloading MP3s for their iPods, poor Oliver is struggling through fencing classes and pondering how he’ll ever finish an essay investigating irony in the work of Moliere.
The curtain goes up as Oliver grumbles good-naturedly about having outgrown the childish rituals of the post-Christmas Epiphany festival that his family is celebrating. The boy is doubly annoyed when he realizes he’s still wearing his paper crown as he glances out the darkened window that bleak January evening.
Instead of seeing his own reflection, Oliver is jarred from his bitter loneliness by a messenger boy in his own likeness. “ ‘We call you, O King.... Come to battle! Bring your sword!’ ” the apparition demands. Oliver is perplexed by this message, but from the vantage point of his intense isolation he feels he can’t ignore the specter’s entreaties. After “claiming” his sword from the Louvre during a daring daytime raid, Oliver’s next stop is the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
There, his new powers allow him to summon a kingdom of mysterious wraiths who dwell in water and windows. , and they promptly crown him their new king. The lucky boy-king soon learns that among his subjects are several historical figures from the reign of Louis XIV, including both Racine and Moliere. (“Moliere! Oliver thought. This was the honest-to-God real Moliere! Why, writing that essay was going to be a piece of pastry now!”)
Oliver’s new advisors explain that as the new king, his natural nemesis is the Master of Mirrors, who “steals souls and takes slaves.” Mirrors serve as potent symbols for the moral at the heart of “The King in the Window” -- that the pursuit of art over beauty is the ultimate path to immortality. Gopnik manages to weave this idea seamlessly into each of the novel’s layers.
Oliver’s preliminary excitement at ruling such an ethereal realm is soon tempered by the arduous task placed before him, and he must enlist the aid of an “arsenal” of friends from the living world to help him counter the Master of Mirrors. Adding a pleasing piquancy is the witty Mrs. Pearson, a prickly British woman who pushes the new hero to rely upon his intellect to outfox his enemies. Charlie, a New Jersey friend, and Neige, a French dream girl, also lend their talents to Oliver’s quest.
Though pacing issues occasionally emerge during the novel’s early chapters, Gopnik hits his stride in the second half as he breathes life into the forces of good and evil battling for supremacy:
“They looked like strange, liquid ghosts, outlined in their window in the gathering gloom. Hundreds of them had gathered, from all over Paris, feeling their way very slowly from old window to old window, there for the last battle. It was pure courage, Oliver realized, as he saw them standing in their comic rows.... Everywhere his eye traveled, the wraiths were advancing along the snow ... to cover the four piers of the lower tower as they stampeded, skimming across the snow. Wave after wave ... clambered up the sides of the tower, threatening to overwhelm the soul-stealers.... “
Arresting, geographically precise descriptions have always been Gopnik’s long suit, and that remains true on every page of “The King in the Window.” Some parents may worry that 10-year-olds will balk under the weight of some of the vocabulary, but many young readers will enjoy the linguistic leap that words like “vitrine,” “quantum” and “pinafore” require of them.
Several delicious themes emerge -- the triumph of man over technology, for example, and the brotherhood of all humankind despite country of origin -- but among Gopnik’s most winning attributes is an ear fine-tuned to pre-adolescent dialogue. This is especially evident in the conversations between Oliver and Charlie. Visiting Yank Charlie must constantly explain Americanisms to Oliver, and the linguistic subtleties he’s failed to catch during the course of his prolonged French sojourn serve as yet another, deeply felt example of the boy’s isolation so far from home.
The only question left unanswered at the end of “The King in the Window” is an obvious one: How long must readers wait before Gopnik writes a Parisian novel aimed at his legions of adult fans? *
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