Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago

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'This intoxicating portrayal of raw animal-magnetism is a reimagining of the love affair between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren. It is vividly atmospheric – the literary equivalent of stepping into a Hopper painting. I was walking those 1947 Chicago streets with them.'—The Pool

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Sharp and intimate, Douglas Cowie’s reimagining of the turbulent love affair between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren asks what it means to love and be loved by the right person at the wrong time.

Chicago, 1947: on a freezing February night, France’s feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir calls up radical resident novelist Nelson Algren, asking him to show her around. After a whirlwind tour of dive bars, cabarets and the police lockup, the pair return to his apartment on Wabansia Avenue. Here, a passion is sparked that will last for the next two decades.

Their relationship intensifies during intoxicating months spent together in Paris and Chicago. But in between are long, anguished periods apart filled with competing desires – lovers old and new, writing, politics, gambling – which ultimately expose the fragility of their unconventional ‘marriage’ and put their devotion to the test.

The London Magazine

21 October 2016

Cowie writes with great economy and assurance, a commanding sense of purpose and narrative drive which in places remind one of the best moments in Anne Tyler... like Tyler at her best, he avoids descending into sentimentalism’s familiar rhythms, resolutions, and clichés while being unafraid and unapologetic in his renderings – equally raw and incisive – of sentiment... Human feeling is the basic – which is not to say easily captured – ingredient of this new novel, which works as a satisfying and coherent whole, in no small measure thanks to Cowie’s ability to balance narrative warmth with authorial cool. Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago is tender without ever being mawkish.

... The novel’s force lies in the carefully shaped sentences and beautiful because unadorned language, from the sensitivity with which Cowie, focalising his narrative in almost equal parts through his protagonists, renders the fine grain, snags, and splinters of love, its illimitable complexities, and its decline.

... Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago is a meticulously crafted and moving piece of work.

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Chasing Ray

1 May 2018

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.

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The Skinny

17 May 2016

Cowie favours understatement and suggestion over bedroom fireworks... words left unsaid heat the page... A classic story brought to life by classic story-telling.

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Mark Blottner, co-director of Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, The Road is All

3 May 2016

Douglas Cowie has captured the tragic love between Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir with heartfelt innocence. Both were committed to social change in their writing and both were disciplined writers living an ocean apart during the most torrid moments of their affair. The couple influenced each other greatly: Algren honing his perspective of the writer in society and de Beauvoir shaping her views on sexual equality – eschewing criticism from the public and the media. Focusing on the simple truths and fundamental desires that arguably these two great intellectuals had denied themselves with others, Cowie exposes the tender, vulnerable soul of both with a deep sense of empathy.

Turnaround blog

[Nelson and Simone's] was basically the ideal kind of love affair to base a novel on, the kind of love that readers find fascinating, compelling, romantic… Cowie has captured this kind of love perfectly. The novel is intoxicating. It’s rich in places but never over-the-top. It feels both contemporary and classic. The relationship itself is just as much a character as de Beauvoir and Algren, who Cowie has brought to life with incredible intimacy… Ultimately the story of a turbulent and incredibly passionate love affair, the novel is well-written, super-engrossing and massively evocative.

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The prose is taut, pacy and compelling… a fascinating study of how people see themselves, how they believe they deserve to be treated by others, and how hard done by they can feel when this does not occur. The observations of the human psyche are sharp and concise... A fascinating account.

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nudge : newbooks

An emotionally charged read… [with] depth and subtlety of both characters… I enjoyed this fine novel that provides a depth of background, personal and historical… melding and deepening my awareness. 5*

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