This month sees the US release of Clémentine Beauvais’ best selling French novel, In Paris with You. Told in verse, this tender and funny book is the story of Eugene and Tatiana, whose teenage romance fails, only to be rekindled when they meet again ten years later. The novel has been a bestseller on French charts since it was published in 2016, selling 30,000 copies in the first three months, and reprinting three times in the first two. It is no surprise this beautifully written story has such appeal. It is infinitely relatable, yet utterly unique. Much like the story in the novel, the story of the novel also crosses time and geography.
In the novel Eugene and Tatiana get another chance, 10 years later, to fall in love with each other. The novel itself gives readers a second chance, more than 150 years later, to fall in love with Tatiana and Eugene's love story. The first chance was in Russia in 1837, when Alexander Pushkin published a serialized novel in verse called Eugene Onegin. Pushkin’s novel would inspire a Tchaikovsky opera a few decades later. More than a century after that, Beauvais would become obsessed with both the novel and the opera and decide write a retelling.
From the beginning, Beauvais was certain there was something the Russian classic had to say to contemporary young adult readers, though she wasn’t sure what. She began by dissecting the Pushkin story. She knew she wanted to play with both the pastiches of Russian literature and contemporary teen romance. She also knew she needed to figure out how to update plot points like a duel that was pivotal to the original work but which had no contemporary equivalent. In Eugene Onegin, marriage is what stands in the way of the heroine reconnecting with Eugene, but marriage today has a very different role in the lives of women. To meet these challenges Beauvais rooted out the deeper purpose of those plot points. From there she built a ‘duel’ that both spoke to the Russian theme of senselessly wasted young life in a contemporary way and created a commitment (career ambition) that might challenge the rekindling of old love for a woman today.
Beauvais tore her story apart and put it back together. She created cliffhangers, shaped characters and developed the narrative. Despite all this the book still fell flat until the moment she decided to try writing in verse.
“There are moments in writing when you crack something and suddenly everything makes sense,” Beauvais said. Despite the Pushkin being a verse novel Beauvais always planned to write her novel in prose. Once she switched to verse and also re-introduced an intrusive narrator from the Pushkin things came together quickly. “Every story has its own shape. Once you find that form you can really begin writing.”
Four months later, despite having never written in verse, Beauvais completed the first draft. The new form turned out to be freeing, as though she were releasing the story from “a thick mush of words.”
Once the first draft was finished, Beauvais insisted that her publisher send it out to young adult beta readers for feedback. It was important for her to make sure it was relevant for her intended audience. From these readers she got some of her most inspiring feedback. One teenager encouraged her to be more visual with the verse form, suggesting the inclusion of what is called in French "calligrammes," where the words make pictures. Beauvais responded with words whose shapes, including two big silhouettes in profile, play off each other from page to page. Young adult readers also struggled with the idea that someone in love would contemplate giving up that love for any reason. To develop that conflict more fully Beauvais lengthened the ending and added a compelling scene with Tatiana’s sister.
Editing complete, the novel was published to tremendous success in France. But the story of this story does not end there. The book was picked up by Faber & Faber for publication in the UK.
While Beauvais has written books in English she now writes only in French, so her UK publisher connected her with British author and translator Sam Taylor to do an English translation of the book. It took countless hours of collaborating with Taylor to get the translation right. Translating the book was more than just getting the words and form to work in English. A verse book leaves a lot open to interpretation, so it is crucially important that the content be revisited to adjust for the nuances of cultural sensitivities. For Beauvais it was like going through a first publication. The duel had to be revisited. Also, English speakers have a different definition of the fine line between possessing the obsessive passion common of new love and being a stalker. In terms of structure, compared to French readers, UK and US readers are less tolerant of tangents or characters whose stories aren’t tied neatly into the architecture of the narrative, so those elements had to be finessed. In the end the book was completed beautifully and launched in English for even more readers to fall in love with.
Since publication, readers of different ages and cultures have embraced the book in a variety of ways Beauvais never anticipated. In France, children’s books in verse are significantly less common than in English. Perhaps because they grow up with a different relationship to stories told in verse, French readers were captivated by the form of the novel. Beauvais even got fan letters written in verse.
Teenagers loved the book as expected, but an unexpected demographic, men ages 25 to 40, were also effusive about the book as a study of male sensitivity in contemporary society.
As the story describes love from the point of view of a teenager and then a young adult, it offers a great chance for dialogue between readers of different ages about what it is to be in love. Many adult readers were shocked that the book was marketed for teenagers when they related to is so significantly themselves. Beauvais describes the multigenerational appeal in this way: “People say 'I felt like a teenager' when they describe falling in love again as adults. What they mean, I think, is that love makes them feel life as more intense, more anchored in reality, in the body, in sensuality, and that's perhaps a characteristic of the first twenty years of life more than the next 70.”
In Paris with You now has its own life in the world and Beauvais is now working on other projects. Brexit Romance, a political romcom, is out in French and is currently being marketed to publishers in English. Currently she is developing a novel set in Northern France in a nursing home built to recreate village life for the benefit of Alzheimer’s patients.
About Clémentine Beauvais: Beauvais writes for both the UK and French markets. Her books written in English include the Sesame Seade series (Hodder) and The Royal Babysitters series (Bloomsbury). ,Her bestselling French book is Piglettes (Pushkin Press). She is an award-winning author in France, and lives and works in York, UK. Find Beauvais online at www.clementinebeauvais.com.
Elizabeth is a writer, designer, professor and dedicated bookworm.