I just finished reading Jennifer Coburn's tres magnifique memoir, We'll Always Have Paris, a hilarious, wacky, and terribly moving memoir about a mother and daughter traveling the world together in the face of their inherent mortality.
|We'll Always Have Vodka!|
Photo (c) Jennifer Coburn
Worried she'll die young after experiencing the death of her adored, hippie father who never lived to see 50, Jennifer sets out on what she thinks is a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Paris with her 8-year-old daughter, Katie. Their adventures, juxtaposed with vignettes from Jennifer's own childhood, strengthen the bond between mother and daughter for us – we get to see the way their personalities play off each other, with Katie as the practical, worry-free child and Jennifer, the neurotic, determined mother. “You're not exactly a zen master, are you?” Katie quips. The same holds true for the relationship between Jennifer and her father when she was Katie's age.
their journey, Jennifer experiences the height of living through her
travels alongside the constant reminder of death. Which makes sense,
because the latter is the reason for the former; otherwise she'd be
making more sensible decisions, like getting the tile replaced in her
instance, in the present moment, we have the pair unable to get into
the Musee D'Orsay due to a terrorist threat, which serves as a
reminder of the time Jennifer's father took her to the observation
deck of the newly built Twin Towers when she was ten. Because, even
if we don't acknowledge it, the Grim Reaper will get us in the
end. Jennifer jumps so effortlessly into the past tense that it seems
so right to be there, even while leaving us hanging in suspense from
one time period to another.
interesting to me how sometimes our children are the ones who comfort
us, when it's normally the other way around. There's plenty of this
when we see Katie comforting her mother through an unintentionally
overzealous dose of spiced cake in Amsterdam that left her baked out
of her mind, and when Jennifer lectures her father on the merits of
using birth control after he gets his lover pregnant again.
was especially gripped by the story of Jennifer's father, who died of
lung cancer when she was 19. The fact is mentioned at the beginning
of the memoir, but she vividly delves deep into the actual events
surrounding his death about three-quarters of the way through the
book, after we've gotten to know him a bit. Without ever slipping
into heavy-handed melancholy, Jennifer shows us the bizarre yet
mundane circumstances of his death that will draw a tear from the
surprise turn in the memoir is when Jennifer turns the trip to Paris
from a once-in-a-lifetime experience to a bi-annual sojourn overseas
- to Italy when Katie is 11, Spain when she's 14, and finally
Amsterdam and back to Paris when she's 16. Home repairs be damned,
she was using their savings to give her daughter something more than
money could possibly buy.
fortunate to have a practical and grounded, yet easy-going and
supportive husband. We don't see much of him, but the few snippets we
do get make him one of the most interesting people in this rich
ensemble of characters. At one point, after Jennifer decides to try
to contact her father beyond the grave through a medium despite her
husband's doubts, she doesn't hesitate to cry on his shoulder once
it's obvious the medium is a fraud, knowing that he'd never in a
million years tell her “I told you so.” Instead he says one of
the most poignant lines in the book: “I love that you are open to
things...look at all of the things you try that work out well.
Sometimes you're open to things that don't pan out, but that's part
of the package.” Just as some of her decisions while traveling
inevitably don't pan out, but the same is true in life.
the time I got to the final trip, I was so engrossed in the book that
I just couldn't put it down and finished it around 4am,
even though I had to be up the next morning. While Jennifer's
death-fear hasn't yet come true, we've just watched Katie grow up
(although, quite honestly, she seemed so mature beyond her years
throughout the book that it was hard to distinguish her age as she
grew). And Jennifer is now facing a life-altering event that can be
as fearful as death – her child on the precipice of leaving the
you think that the book's title has a similar meaning to its
predecessor in Casablanca, there's another twist: It actually
means the opposite. Paris isn't just a memory for the pair to cherish
because the past is better than the future; they will always have
Paris because the city will always be there and they will always
of dying young isn't an altogether bad thing,” she writes. "Sometimes it makes you try what you might otherwise delay."
|Jennifer and Katie at the WAHP Premier|
(c) Jennifer Coburn