On one level, Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago is a novel about a long distance romance spanning 17 years that begins in 1947. When it begins, the woman lives in Paris and is visiting Chicago, the man lives there. They meet through a mutual friend, embark on a torrid affair and find that while they continue to be drawn to each other with great fervor, their work is equally important and keeps them apart. It’s a classic “she can’t have it all” story for the female protagonist (although children do not play much of a part in this). The fact that the woman is Simone de Beauvoir and the man Nelson Algren and the story is based on truth, well, that just makes it a heckuva lot juicier to read.
The central conflict is that de Beauvoir had a career that was irrevocably tied to Jean-Paul Satre. The two of them also had a wickedly confusing personal relationship. She loved Nelson Algren however – they passionately loved each other. (All of this can be found in their letters.) In his book Cowie dives deep into this relationship (which was pretty much doomed from the start), and explores all of its harsh reality. But the book isn’t depressing – it’s just realistic. I write that knowing the book is a fictionalized recounting of a real relationship, but it’s realistic in that anyone who has ever been torn between work and love can understand what happened to these two people.
Beyond the relationships, author Douglas Cowie also does a great job of presenting mid-century Chicago and Paris as well as other destinations visited by the protagonists. He immerses his readers in the times de Beauvoir and Algren were living in and that is also quite illuminating (especially when it comes to de Beauvoir’s success). There is also much here of an author on the long slide down from success (Algren) versus another at the peak of her ability. (You can imagine how that goes.)
I knew a bit about Simone de Beauvoir before reading Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago but beyond his most famous book (The Man With the Golden Arm), nothing about Nelson Algren. Cowie had made me very curious about knowing more, however, about both of them, especially de Beauvoir. (I am also irked by the fact that a cursory look into her life online has found far too many male writers/journalists continue to credit Algren for helping de Beauvoir with writing The Second Sex – as if without his love, it would not have happened.) It looks like Deirdre Blair’s biography is the best choice for de Beauvoir so that’s where I will begin.
The novel is more than enough for folks happy to get a look at a couple of accomplished writers’ lives. It’s a quick read – quite gripping as the breaking up begins – and I thoroughly enjoyed it.