May 23, 2016

Book Review: The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs by Elaine Sciolino

Elaine Sciolino, the former Paris Bureau Chief of the New York Times, invites us on a tour of her favorite Parisian street, offering an homage to street life and the pleasures of Parisian living. “I can never be sad on the rue des Martyrs,” Sciolino explains, as she celebrates the neighborhood’s rich history and vibrant lives. While many cities suffer from the leveling effects of globalization, the rue des Martyrs maintains its distinct allure. On this street, the patron saint of France was beheaded and the Jesuits took their first vows. It was here that Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted circus acrobats, Emile Zola situated a lesbian dinner club in his novel Nana, and Francois Truffaut filmed scenes from The 400 Blows. Sciolino reveals the charms and idiosyncrasies of this street and its longtime residents—the Tunisian greengrocer, the husband-and-wife cheesemongers, the showman who’s been running a transvestite cabaret for more than half a century, the owner of a 100-year-old bookstore, the woman who repairs eighteenth-century mercury barometers—bringing Paris alive in all of its unique majesty. The Only Street in Paris will make readers hungry for Paris, for cheese and wine, and for the kind of street life that is all too quickly disappearing.

Elaine Sciolino writes that “there are few tourists” on Rue des Martyrs … but after the publication of this book, I doubt that will be the truth anymore. With intimate detail she explores the various shops and their keepers – the colorful characters, the daily life on this one Parisian street she deems “perfect.” From recounting a storied past to a lively present (my favorite is definitely the Michou chapter), Sciolino’s descriptions will send more tourists to the Rue des Martyrs looking for the bookstore with the crochety owners and the bistrot where the bartender sets the counter on fire every night.

“Some people look at the Rue des Martyrs and see a street.  I see stories.

“For me it is the last real street in Paris, a half-mile celebration of the city in all its diversity – its rituals and routines, it’s permanence and transience, its quirky old family-owned shops and pretty young boutiques.  This street represents what is left of the intimate, human side of Paris.

“I can never be sad on the rue des Martyrs.”

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