I love bold fiction. It makes me think, challenges my preconceptions and stays with me. Being bold, as a writer, takes courage. It can mean digging into uncomfortable feelings, tackling controversial subjects, creating debate. Isabel Costello was determined to be bold when she set about writing Paris Mon Amour and the result is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.
Alexandra, in shock after discovering her husband is having an affair, finds herself attracted to a much younger frenchman. Her liaisons with the twenty-three-year-old become increasingly passionate, threatening everyone and everything she holds dear.
This sensual debut is not Isabel’s first. After completing her first novel and getting an agent, she was heartbroken when publishers didn’t buy it. But she didn’t give up. Instead, she put her emotions into writing Paris Mon Amour which was published by Canelo earlier this year. It’s a true example of the great things that can happen when a writer perseveres.
Picking a controversial point of view
Isabel wanted Paris Mon Amour to be bold. It began as a short story, but she became so fired up about the concept that she and her agent knew it could be more. Giving it her all, she strived to transform it into a deep, fresh and truthful novel.
She soon realised it would be written most powerfully in the second person. It’s a point of view that divides the literary world and, handled badly or used simply to create attention, can sound like a gimmick. Isabel, however, has used it masterfully. The narrative gave me a unique intimacy with Alexandra, the protagonist. I felt like her therapist and occasionally her accomplice, let in to her most private thoughts, trusted with her secrets.
Isabel worked hard to get the narrative right, pushing for psychological depth. She tried to use ‘you’ often enough to feel like a conversation was taking place with the reader without it being too intrusive. Despite all this, she knew the point of view was likely to get a mixed reaction but this never stopped her doing what felt was right for her story. She focused, instead, on making it the best she could.
Creating an intimate, Parisian experience
Paris Mon Amour gives a taste of living in Paris rather than simply visiting. Isabel knows France well, having visited over fifty times, so she didn’t need to lean on tourist favourites like the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. Alexandra, had been living in the City over ten years, so Isabel focused on the areas frequented by locals and filtered out things she would no longer notice.
Isabel drew on her great grasp of French when researching and writing the novel too. Being able to speak the language has opened up the country to her and she loves exploring areas tourists rarely go. Her experience has given Paris Mon Amour authenticity. I loved the way French words have been sprinkled effortlessly into the English narration, not even needing to be explained. It reminded me a little of Villette by Charlotte Brontë, in this way.
Writing about settings with such familiarity requires boldness and lots of research. Isabel didn’t want to get even the finest details wrong to ensure she could make the story feel real.
Going deep with her characters
Good writers draw upon their emotions when expressing those of their characters. The candour in Paris Mon Amour has intrigued some readers into asking where the line lies between Isabel’s life and Alexandra’s fictional one when it comes to her handling of marital issues, love, lust and betrayal. Isabel believes, though, that writers don’t have to experience everything to write well. Imagination is essential.
Isabel’s boldness with her characters is refreshing. Many readers have cheered her for writing about a woman over forty in an authentic way, dispelling the myths of the media which imply that women’s desires end with their first facial lines, a few grey hairs or menopause. Alexandra comes across as attractive, desirable and frank, allowing the novel to go both under the surface of what is normally discussed and explore complexities.
You can be bold with your writing too
Isabel encourages writers to take risks and be bold. Don’t write something that’s already out there. Your best chance of standing out is to write something that can only come from you. Let the words flow out. Don’t spend too much time editing prose along the way, polishing sentences which may not make the final draft. Get out what you truly want to say and get the story down. Risk not being perfect in the beginning. You can make it shine later.
On the days it’s hard to keep going, think of how you’ll feel when your story is published. Although she had success with short stories, Isabel had to persevere for seven years to see one of her novels in print. It’s been worth the wait. Paris Mon Amour is a delight and certainly one I recommend if you’re open to a bold, female protagonist.
Paris Mon Amour is available on Amazon in the UK, US and on Audible. You can also discover more about Isabel on the brilliant, Literary Sofa blog, where she talks about her experiences as an author, interviews writers and publishes thought-provoking book reviews.