Jake Halpern is the author, most recently, of the novel Dormia.
When I was 15 years old, I spent part of the summer in France, and I fell in love with girl named Nicole. We spent one full day together, just the two of us, lying on the beach in Nice. I remember what she wore, even the way her hair smelled — like lavender. Years later — I must have been in my early 20s — I stepped into a perfume shop in Boston and smelled that particular scent. It was Nicole's — and it floored me. Memories flooded back. I didn't just recall being in Nice with Nicole; for a moment, I was there — I felt viscerally like that 15-year-old kid who was in love for the first time. The scent just whisked me away.
For me, the books of Alan Furst conjure a similar magic. Furst's novels have been likened to works of Graham Green and John le Carre. His stories tend to be set in Paris on the eve of World War II. He is a master at creating mood — mood so bewitching that for a moment, you feel as if you're there in Paris, in the dim bistro, way back in the corner booth, sipping your Chateau Margaux.
Look, let's be clear. I am a 34-year-old guy who grew up in Buffalo. I probably couldn't taste the difference between vintage Bordeaux and Two Buck Chuck. And I certainly wasn't there on the eve of Paris' fall to Nazis.
But I feel as if I were.
Consider this scene from Night Soldiers. In it, the main character, Khristo, and his lover, Aleksandra, are walking into a cafe early in the morning:
"The workingmen in the cafe acknowledged her entrance with great affection. She was so titi — the classic Parisian street urchin, given to storm-blown passions yet impossibly adorable — towing her coatless lover into a cafe so early in the rainy morning, so delighted with her own eccentricity yet so vulnerable — blond shag hanging down to her eyes — that every one of them felt obliged to desire her. For she was, if only for a moment, some girl they'd once loved."
You read Furst for the moments like this — moments in cafes, in brothels, in lovers' garrets and in train rides across the Pyrenees. You even savor the dank, dark, terror of the cellars where the Gestapo thugs take their prisoners, if only to feel as if you were there and lived to tell. You read Furst, because when you crack open that binding, you don't smell glue — you smell the scent of espresso and the smoke of Gauloises cigarettes. And for a brief transcendent moment, you're there.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.
This first appeared as a web only book review on May 24, 2010.