Nearly everyone who spends any significant time in Paris has one place that makes them feel at peace — a home away from home. For Elaine Sciolino, the former Paris bureau chief of The New York Times, that place is the Seine.
What most shows through in Sciolino’s latest book “The Seine: The River That Made Paris” is a deep respect for her subject: the 483-mile waterway that passes through Paris on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. “The Seine” is heavily researched — containing nearly 30 chapters that describe the myriad ways the river has shaped the culture, industry, society and economy of France. However, it’s Sciolino’s storytelling that truly brings the book to life.
“The Seine” informs and teaches readers about the Seine without overpowering them. Far from a dull, austere historical dissertation, Sciolino’s book is light-hearted, energetic and romantic — in a word: fun.
Over the course of 300 pages, the author of the bestsellers “La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life” and “The Only Street in Paris” takes the reader on a journey from the Seine’s seemingly unremarkable source in the Langres plateau to its end in the industrial port city of Le Havre.
Along the way we meet a number of characters who live, work and play on the famous river. There’s Jean-Pierre Fleury, a Champagne producer in the Aube region who accompanies Sciolino as she goes for a swim in the Seine and reveals the fascinating — and at times contentious — history of the region; Arlette Renau, a rare batelière, or female barge worker, who is struggling to leave an abusive partner and go it alone in a male-dominated industry; the brigade fluvial, a nautical police force who dive into the Seine to fish out bicycles, bodies and buried secrets from its depths. The list, of course, goes on.
In “The Seine,” history, literature and art function as characters, too. Sequana, the Gallo-Roman-era river goddess believed to be the namesake of the Seine, is Sciolino’s muse as she explores the river from end to end. Ernest Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Harry Houdini, Marie Curie, Michelle Obama and Audrey Hepburn were all brushed in various ways by the Seine’s currents.
“The Seine” is at its best when it takes you to unexpected places: the storage locker of a museum in Bercy that holds the remains of a Neolithic dugout canoe, or a windmill in rural Normandy, for example.
Sciolino’s journalistic training (in addition to her work in Paris, she has reported for Newsweek in Rome and the Times in Iran and Washington D.C.) is on full display as she consults with an impressive Rolodex of sources and finagles her way into backroom exhibits, cruise ships and houseboats.
This book, however, is not just a journalistic work. It’s also deeply personal. It could be said that Sciolino fell in love with the Seine before she fell in love with Paris. For the author — as for many of the characters in the book — the river was a bedrock in an otherwise unfamiliar place, at once a source of grounding and a propeller of forward motion, in a time when she needed it.
“I overcame anxiety and loneliness and moved forward in my life, like the Seine in its course,” Sciolino writes. “The river allowed me to begin a journey of discovery — of Paris, of the French people, of myself. Its energy pumped through my veins; its light gave me strength.”
She continues: “‘Everything is going to be okay,’ I told myself. And over time it was.”
Buy “The Seine: the River That Made Paris,” by Elaine Sciolino, here on Amazon