Cover Image: The Parisian

The Parisian

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Member Reviews

‘”When I look at my life,” he said, “I see a whole list of mistakes. Lovely, beautiful mistakes. I wouldn’t change them.”’

This is a sprawling historical tale of Palestinian identity and the genesis of the complexities of the current state of affairs in the Middle East as a result of events before and after the First World War. I use the term ‘sprawling’ deliberately for, as much as I found much to enjoy and admire in Isabella Hammad’s new book, the huge range of characters and the passing of time left me unmoved and unable to connect with the main characters of Midhat Kamal and his immediate family. The novel opens with Kamal leaving home to study medicine in Montpelier, staying at the home of Frédéric Molineau. Here he meets Molineau’s daughter Jeannette and falls in love. However, things don’t go to plan and he leaves to move to Paris, dropping his medical studies. Here he mixes with the Parisian crowd, developing western habits and dress sense. Eventually he moves back home to Nablus, and finds himself living the life of a dutiful son, taking over his father’s business and marrying a local girl, Fatima, in an arranged marriage.

This is where it all gets a little too complicated for me, as there are a whole series of subplots involving characters who pop in and out of the story, most involving politics and uprising. There is a priest who starts to work for the British secret service. The long-lost love of Jeannette resurfaces when Midhat finds an old letter that she had sent that his father had never passed on to him, and he has some sort of mental breakdown, ending up in a psychiatric hospital. Finally, he gets home to his wife and children and, well, the book sort of ends.

I read many of the other reviews for this which raved about it being ‘the book of the year’ but, for me, I was left more than a little flat by it all. I couldn’t connect with the main character, found the broad sweep of time passing an awkward way to somehow try and explore the back story of the Middle East crisis, and just lost track of who people were at times. Given the chorus of approval from most others, I’ll take this as a sign that this was just not the book for me. The writing was intelligent and, despite my issues, I kept going until the end so I guess that says something. It just felt that it was trying to hard to be a ‘worthy’ book, a ‘serious’ book, and I just found that got in the way of it actually being an enjoyable read. Others will enjoy this and admire this more than I do, and that’s exactly how it should be. If we all liked the same books then, boy oh boy, it would be a beige-coloured world indeed. A ‘worthy’ 3 stars from me for this one.

(With thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC of this title.)
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A truly interesting book about an under-discussed period in history set as the background to a romance. A lovely debut, I look forward to more from Isabella Hammad.
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This tells the story of 19 year old Midhat Kamal as he leaves his home in Nablus in 1914, to travel to France to study medicine. He spends some time in Paris and earns the nickname, the Parisian..there is a failed romance, after which Midhat goes a little wild in the jublilant France after the war...

But when returning home he feels a bit lost and that he no longer belongs…

A beautifully written tale, of politics, love and religion in a turbulent time. This is not a quick read, but one to take your time over.

I would like to thank the Author/the Publishers/NetGalley for the opportunity to read this book for free in exchange for a fair and honest review
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An epic tale of a young Palestinian man who decides to train to become a doctor during the First World War. His training takes place in France where he stays with a family who introduce him to the social elite at dinner parties. He develops friendships and a romantic relationship, but his Middle East roots provoke certain negative attitudes. 

The story covers a huge chunk of his life at a time of instability in the world. There are the crumbling Ottoman and British Empires, the fight for Palestinian independence and intermingled with this are his own personal growth and relationships.

The contrast between France and the Middle East is intensely detailed, with the French parties and the Palestinian markets and festivals, for example, and the changing roles within class and gender lines. Hammad picks out the tiniest features in social interactions, manners and characters to such an extent that it reminds me of Jane Austen.

This is a long book, as are all epics, but it generally flows well with the exception of the intermittent use of French or Arabic phrases. At the beginning there is a list of characters like one would find in a play. I braced myself for a challenge. However, despite the long list and the inconsistent use of first or last names, I could keep up with most of the characters.

The language is quite old-fashioned but modern enough to understand easily. What this means is that this book could still be on the shelves - and selling - twenty years from now. Recommended.

#NetGalley #TheParisian
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Long, drawn out, vague, and assumed a knowledge of the history of Palestine that most people don't have. Pointless tangents that don't go anywhere and a lot of untranslated Arabic conversations that leave you guessing. No real conclusion or plot, which was sad because the idea of the book had me interested. It just did not deliver
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After reading several other reviews before I started this book I expected to love it. 
The story follows the life of Midhat Kamal through the challenging & changing times in the Middle East during the early 20th century - a part of history not often covered in novels. 

Midhat is a privileged, spoilt young child who grows in to a privileged, spoilt, self absorbed man whose focus is on how others perceive him and how he feels he should be perceived by them rather than the world and people around him and this made it hard to warm to him. At times he is almost oblivious to the goings on in the troubled time he is living in. 

The details on the politics and happenings covered in the story are very well researched, but play second story to Midhat as he really has no interest in them. I also struggled to form a timeline of events and when they were happening. At times the descriptions are quite intense & detracted from the story for me.

I struggled with this book but I can see why it has been so well received and would recommend it.
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In many ways, this is an extraordinary book. It is the debut novel from a talented young writer with impeccable credentials (Oxford, Harvard) and has been widely acclaimed. It is ambitious in its scope in terms both of geography and time, akin to a sprawling Russian novel where the plot is handed onto new characters and unravels in new places. There's a sense that Isabella Hammad has read Tolstoy!

The central character for most of the novel is Midhat Kamal, the son of a successful textile merchant in Nablus. Midhat travels to France, ostensibly to train in medicine but becomes immersed in French life and falls in love with Jeanette Molineau, the daughter of his landlord in Montpellier. He never quite copes with French manners and, subsequently, never quite fits in wherever he is. This lack of identity is also at the heart of their failed relationship. As the novel develops, he returns to Nablus and is something of a stranger there too. Although he marries, he never finds contentment and for much of the second part of the novel is confined to hospital.

His new wife, Fatima Hammad, is part of a much more politicised Arab family and as the novel unfolds her family reflects the chaos in the Middle East which followed the fall of the Ottoman Empire, its replacement by bickering colonial powers, the Balfour declaration and the waves of Jewish immigration. It is rare to see an Arabic perspective on this shabby piece of history which was then overwhelmed and overwritten by the onset of the Second World War.

The book has considerable strengths. As mentioned above, it shines a light on a neglected area of history which is significant in terms of Palestine today. The character of Midhat is well drawn but also stands for the failure of the region to find its own identity. The book is stylishly written with some powerful evocations of its various contexts while the mix of domesticity and politics rolls the story along.

However, it is also sprawling in an almost lazy way. There is no central thread of characterisation for the reader to focus on and it is easy to wonder why you should care about this or that member of the Hammad family engaged in some political intrigue which you only have a hazy concept of. The book slips frequently into Arabic and French in conversations which is, perhaps, a bit too clever and there is not what you might call a cathartic dénouement!

I don't know what relationship Isabella Hammad has to the Hammad family and at what point a genuine family story and genuine history intersects with the fiction. I don't like that ambivalence in the novel and that uncertainty over which bits are real and which are fiction.

That said, this is still an extraordinary first novel but, perhaps, some of the lavish praise heaped upon it is a little over the top. When it's made into a film, as it doubtless will be, it will be interesting to see how the director chooses to focus on the story, which characters to bring out and which landscapes to emphasise and you could argue that the novel should already have done that. Regardless of that, this will be the hot holiday read of the summer for those of us who like long, serious books with our sundowners!
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I'm abandoning this one at 33%. It started out well, but once the main character got to Paris, it became a history book lightly disguised as fiction, with characters all telling each other stuff the author wanted the reader to know. Then, when Midhat returned to Nablus, I discovered I'd forgotten who the characters there were and, worse, that I didn't much care. That, combined with the extreme irritation of having to translate the French bits and being unable to translate all the bits in Arabic, made this a frustrating and irritating read. The blurb still sounds interesting, there's potential in the writing, but the overall execution is poor. I won't be posting a review for this one, since it's a debut, but if I were to, I'm afraid it would be very negative.
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Unfortunately the amount of detail in the book made me a bit too impatient to persevere until the end, although I thought the characters were well defined
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Midhat Kamal moves to France to pursue his studying dreams. Although the love of his life will be there, circumstances will lead him away. Relocating in Paris, Midhat will find himself following the life his family has expected of him. One that shapes him into a "proper Parisian". But, in a shifting, post-world-war-one era, is he really happy about his life choices? Or is he about to discover that things are in a constant state of change?

The Parisian is a bittersweet historical fiction novel revolving around life choices, discovering one's own identity, and living with the consequences of your actions. Through the life of one man, however, the readers also follow the shifting movements of Europe after one of the most destructive wars. Isabella Hammad has managed to paint some very realistic pictures, ones that stick to a very worrying, but solid reality.

The Parisian is an ideal pick for the fans of historical fiction. Definitely recommended.
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A masterful debut novel by Plimpton Prize winner Isabella Hammad, The Parisian illuminates a pivotal period of Palestinian history through the journey and romances of one young man, from his studies in France during World War I to his return to Palestine at the dawn of its battle for independence.

Midhat Kamal is the son of a wealthy textile merchant from Nablus, a town in Ottoman Palestine. A dreamer, a romantic, an aesthete, in 1914 he leaves to study medicine in France, and falls in love. When Midhat returns to Nablus to find it under British rule, and the entire region erupting with nationalist fervor, he must find a way to cope with his conflicting loyalties and the expectations of his community. The story of Midhat’s life develops alongside the idea of a nation, as he and those close to him confront what it means to strive for independence in a world that seems on the verge of falling apart.

Against a landscape of political change that continues to define the Middle East, The Parisian explores questions of power and identity, enduring love, and the uncanny ability of the past to disrupt the present. Lush and immersive, and devastating in its power, The Parisian is an elegant, richly-imagined debut from a superb new voice in fiction. With a beautifully written narrative and danger lurking around every corner, this is a stunning novel with heart and hope but above all, it covers a neglected period in history.

Many thanks to Jonathan Cape for an ARC.
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I’m always keen to read history told from different points of view, particularly those we don’t often get to hear in the mainstream history books, and so this book about a Palestinian in Paris during the First World War definitely appealed. Midhat Kamal grew up in the town of Nablus, under the Ottoman occupation, the son of a successful textile merchant, who was rarely at home, preferring to travel on business or to spend time with his second wife and their children. Midhat’s mother died when he was young, and so he has been mostly brought up by his grandmother. Following the outbreak of war in Europe, Midhat leaves his family and travels across the Mediterranean to France, in order to study medicine in Montpelier.

On arrival at Montpelier Station, Midhat is met by Jeanette Molineu, the daughter of the academic with whom he will be staying. The Molineu family were previously well to do, but have now fallen on hard times, with many of the rooms in their large house closed off, and their staff consisting of only a housekeeper. Doctor Molineu’s career is also struggling; he longs to produce an outstanding piece of research, but is hampered by the unpopularity of his German-influenced philosophical interests.

During the first year of his studies, Midhat makes friends with fellow students and with the regular visitors to the Molineu house. He also falls in love with Jeanette. His life changes suddenly, however, when he realises that Doctor Molineu regards him as closer to an experimental subject to a fellow human being. Midhat argues with the Doctor and uproots to Paris, where he switches his studies to the humanities and enjoys a pleasant few years of philosophical and sexual exploration despite the continuing war.

I enjoyed the first part of the book very much as Midhat made his way in the world and matured into an educated and sophisticated young man. By contrast, I found that the continuation of the story after the war’s end, when Midhat returns to his home town and begins work in his father’s business, attempted to shoehorn too many years of history into too few pages. The book encompasses almost the whole of Midhat’s life and charts the changes occurring in Palestine and the surrounding nations under European – mostly British – occupation, and the effects of the various waves of Jewish immigration. There was a lot happening that caught my interest; I just wish these stories could have been told across two or three separate books to do full justice to all of them. Likewise, I found the changing roles of the women in the story to be particularly fascinating. However, at times their stories were drowned out by the angst of the men.

All in all this wasn’t quite the book I expected from the early chapters. Its title comes from the nickname given to Midhat in the years following his return from Paris. I’ll be interested to see how the author’s writing develops in future novels, in spite of my disappointment with this first one.
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Thanks to Random House UK and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review.

Nothing sends chills down my spine when I start reading a book like there being an extensive Cast of Characters list at the beginning. It makes me think of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels and how I kept forgetting who everyone was. The character list in this book makes the Neapolitan novels look like I Am Legend.

Midhat Kamal, a young Palestinian man moves to France to study medicine. In Montpelier he stays with a Doctor and his daughter, Jeanette, whom he soon develops feelings for. The course of true love does not run smoothly however, and set against the backdrop of the First World War, events conspire to drive the young lovers apart.

I really struggled with this book. It contains a number of things I really dislike in a novel.

1) Tons and tons of untranslated dialogue in French and Arabic. This really is a pet peeve of mine which I've complained about in numerous other reviews. Does anyone like this? Ever?

2) Way, way too many characters. I honestly can't remember the last time I read a book with this many characters. It served to make the story borderline impossible to follow and as I was reading it on my kindle it wasn't easy to flip back to the start to see who was who. The characters themselves also seemed a bit flat and I didn't care about any of them which is a big issue for me.

3) Too many competing themes. There is a lot in this book and I just found it all a bit discordant. War, racial tensions, prejudice, philosophy, political tensions, friction between ethnic and religious groups, some philosophy thrown was just too much to get a handle on.

I quite literally lost the plot reading this book. It felt bloated to read and I just couldn't engage with it at all. It's the kind of book some people will love but just not for me. Sorry!
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I am sorry but I could not get into this book at all. I am a big fan of historical fiction and I was really looking forward to reading this book. I felt that there was a lot of detail and that was stopping me from feeling immersed in the story. 

Thank you to Netgalley for my copy.
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Really good insight into life in the middle east during the war and subsequent uprisings. Well written book with characters that are easily relatable and a plot that keeps you reading.
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I love novels based around WW1 or 2 but unfortunately I really struggled with this one. A young Palestinian moving to France to become a Doctor sounded great but early on I realised this wasn’t for me. The main discouraging thing was the dialogue in a French and Arabic with no translation making it difficult to easily understand the characters as well as the plot. So to encourage any author please give a translation for any books written in English where a foreign language is used. Thanks as always to NetGalley
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When Midhat Kamal leaves his home town Nablus for France, he doesn’t know that the old continent is on the verge of World War I. The young Palestinian starts his studies in medicine close to the Mediterranean where he also gets his first insight in the French culture and society. He soon has to realise that not only the world is in a very fragile state but also that in private life coalitions change quickly and even though at the beginning of the new century, people are eager to explore the world and foreign cultures, this does not mean that people are open to consider someone from the Middle East their equal. From France, he returns only to learn that also is home country is not an easy place to live.

When opening the book I was already astonished by the sheer number of characters listed. Yet, this turned out to be only one of the factors that made the novel quite hard to read for me. I also could hardly relate to the protagonist who, in my opinion, was stubborn and narrow minded. Third, Isabella Hammad simply wanted too much for my liking. Setting a love story against world politics is one thing, but it rarely works to write a convincing story on several levels – the personal, the societal and the political – without losing focus. I found the story quite lengthy and thus boring. Additionally, the intercultural conflicts and misunderstanding between the characters could have provided a lot of food for thought, yet, in my view, much of them were drawn too stereotypically and reduced to one or two features to actually provide grounds for discussion.
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I had great hopes for this book as it is set during one of my favourite periods of history. But I am finding it so hard to get into. None of the characters are engaging me - and that character list at the beginning is quite off-putting. I always consider them an intrusion; if one engages with the story and the characters, one doesn't need a reminder of who they are. It's worse than War and Peace! Other reviewers have commented on the quality of the writing, but I am sorry to disagree. If it was all in one language it would be better. Phrases in French or Arabic without translation make it hard to follow. I would like to thank NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review an eARC
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Although well-written, this book took me a while to get into, mostly because I couldn't relate to the main character, Midhat Kamal, though could empathise with his move to Paris and struggle with the finer points of French! Worth reading though, to get a flavour of what it must be like to live through some of the major events in Palestinian history.
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I found this heavy going. It took me a long time to get into it and I kept putting it down then feeling guilty and picking it up again. It is very beautiful, and well written, but the story didn't move fast enough for me.
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