Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago is a work of fiction about real-life happenings. It’s a novel about novelists; it’s a love story about a love story. More specifically, it’s a re-imagining of the intense, chaotic and ultimately doomed love affair between writers Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren.
It begins with a phone call. Algren is alone, eating stew and listening to records, deciding where to get drunk that night, when he receives a muddled call from a woman with an interesting accent. That’s how they met; a mutual friend set them up when de Beauvoir was visiting Chicago in 1947. Algren ends up taking Simone on an impulsive and seedy tour of the city, to dive bars and cabaret shows, and eventually back to his (romantically grotty) apartment where they begin an on-off affair that lasts for the next two decades.
Fans of de Beauvoir or Algren will likely know their relationship was stormy, passionate, and unconventional; it has been documented by de Beauvoir and Algren themselves, both in their novels and in letters written between them, later published. It was a kind of head-over-heels love; unstable in its fury but unbreakable in its strength. It was basically the ideal kind of love affair to base a novel on, the kind of love that readers find fascinating, compelling, romantic; even occasionally gross in that way love sometimes is.
In Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago, author Douglas 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. I imagine it must be quite hard to fictionalise real-life people, especially people who are likely to be already familiar to readers, but Cowie has done so in a way that feels natural.
For anyone with an interest in the 1940’s, this is an ideal read. Set between Paris and Chicago, the novel is full of smoky corners and fogged-up windows, of music and smells. It’s palpable and it’s addictive. Although it takes place a decade later, any reader of Henry Miller or Anais Nin will be sucked into the atmosphere in the same way.
Unfortunately for Nelson and Simone, their relationship was doomed from the beginning. With neither one of them willing to relocate to the other’s city, they suffered long periods apart. Neither was willing to put the other before their writing. And in the 1940s you couldn’t just hop on Virgin Atlantic and drink free gin for nine hours until you were reunited. The distance, mixed with their competing desires, eventually got the better of them.
Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago is absolutely worth a read, whether you are interested in the two writers or not. There’s no doubt both are fascinating characters; their contemporaries, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre also make appearances in the book. Ultimately the story of a turbulent and incredibly passionate love affair, the novel is well-written, super-engrossing and massively evocative. And aside from being a great read, you’ll learn plenty about de Beauvoir and Algren along the way.
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