Tatiana de Rosnay's new novel, "The House I Loved," employs an unusual approach to telling a real story of Paris in the 1860's. The inhabitants of many old neighborhoods there had their hearts as well as their homes broken to accommodate Baron Haussmann's modernization of the city.
By decree of Emperor Napoleon III, Haussmann sent out letters informing those whose houses stood in the determined path of renovation, that they must relocate. The Emperor offered sadly insufficient monetary compensation to those forced to move from buildings that had been homes and businesses to their French families for generations.
Rose Bazelet, the book's main character, chronicles in a uniquely personal way the pain of the familiar being sucked away with each demolished building, each window, each cobblestone. She gathers her observations in letters addressed to her deceased husband, Armand, meaning to share the trauma with him by writing of the shock, dismay, and helplessness that she and her long-time neighbors suffered.
Something more than the reordering of the many neighborhoods on Rue Childebert is about to unfold in de Rosnay's story, but it's the gut-wrenching change in Rose's physical space that resonates in me, especially at this juncture of my life.
I have always depended on and been devoted to the familiar walls that held me. They echo in my earliest memories. There was the steep staircase in my Nana's house on Wheeler's Point that my cousin and I used to climb, hurrying past the heavy burgundy drape hung at the top to conceal a stepladder to the attic. We feared the goblins that lurked behind it. When we had jumping contests on the big feather bed, sometimes our heads smacked into the too-low ceiling.
In our house in Bangor, Maine, there was the wall along the hallway that connected my parents' bedroom to mine. I could navigate in the darkest of nights by sliding my hands along the wallpaper, counting the three seams that would led me to the safety and comfort of their bed.
In our Rockport house on High Street, my narrow bed was pushed up against a sturdy wall so that I wouldn't fall out at night, and I slept snuggled up against it, a pile of stuffed animal toys buffering the open side.
Even in adulthood, when my husband and I bought our house on Wolf Hill in Gloucester, we spent many weekends before moving in, working on the interior walls. It was as if every smoothing out of an air bubble under wallpaper, or gliding a paintbrush along the side of a doorjamb or window frame finally made it ours.
I have lived in only two "new" houses. The first was in a housing development in Gloucester, built like thousands of others all over the country to accommodate the huge influx of servicemen returning from World War II. I was four years old at the time. The second was in the apple country of Hudson, and was the first house, a "starter," that my husband and I bought. I recall vividly that the walls in those houses were flimsy, too new to have absorbed memories or history. They both felt temporary.
I wonder sometimes how many walls in my life are still standing after I have moved out of them. I wonder who, if anyone, seeks and finds solace in their strength.
In the Gloucester Times, when I read the conflicting opinions on urban renewal in our city, on our waterfront, I understand the arguments from both sides. They are sincere, heartfelt; they are certainly not new. Growing pains always hurt.
After all, Rogers Street was once a neighborhood of houses. Everything changes, says my husband. Everything mutates. "Do you miss the dinosaurs?" he challenges. Well, yes, sometimes I do.
Realities shift. They move from being viable to melting into memories. Perhaps everything lives on in some new configuration. Still, I think some changes would be better made — after I am gone.
Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.