The Sky over Paris
Assured debut about a professor who falls for the doppelganger of the woman he loved and lost
An original take on love and art, Bregje Hofstede’s graceful and distinctive debut combines an enthralling and original romance with thought-provoking insights from her background as an art historian.
Olivier, a French professor of art history, has settled into comfortable middle age, enjoying a tranquil Parisian lifestyle with his girlfriend Sylvie. He is woken from his slumber by the appearance of 21-year-old exchange student Fie, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mathilde, the young woman he loved and lost 25 years previously, having been reluctant to support her in pregnancy to the point of urging her to have an abortion. Mathilde had vanished from his life and he had regretted his decision ever since.
Now Olivier becomes obsessed by Fie. The memories of happier days she rekindles make it increasingly impossible to settle for the anodyne security of his current life with Sylvie. When Fie discovers she is pregnant, history seems to be repeating itself. Once she has left her boyfriend and decided to keep the baby, Olivier takes on the role of her protector, even though it costs him his relationship, his career and his reputation. He leaves Paris with Fie at his side: ‘The accelerator burns beneath his foot and his happiness colours the sky. Everything he was afraid of has finally come to pass.’
The love story is interspersed with Fie’s struggles to describe as lively as possible the artist’s search for the perfect work of art. These reflections add depth to the love story. She describes how Robert Rauschenberg once rubbed out a charcoal drawing by Willem de Kooning to create a new artwork Erased De Kooning Drawing because he was battling against the current of time, returning to the drawing’s beginnings, ‘back to the moment when the artist’s idea was still unspoiled, the paper untouched’.
Similarly, Olivier is being given the chance to return to the moment when his idea of love was pure and unsullied, to make an almost existential choice in favour of romance and fatherhood. For the first time in his life, he dares to commit to someone. The Sky over Paris suggests that it is better to throw caution to the wind and make a start than to endlessly pursue the ideal, whether in art or in love. It is a rich theme, one that this mature novel from a young author both explores and embodies.