Books

The Seine review: A travel memoir of the river that runs through Paris

Tourists usually look up from the boats in Paris that carry them along the Seine, admiring Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower and the magnificent bridges. But if we looked down at the water, we would start to appreciate the source of all the grandeur above. “Without the Eiffel Tower, Paris would still exist; without the Seine, there never would have been a Paris,” writes Elaine Sciolino, a longtime American in Paris.

Sciolino stumbled into Paris decades ago as a divorced young journalist with feeble French. She thanks the Seine for keeping her grounded as she rebuilt her life. But as the years passed, she came to realize that she knew very little about “the most romantic river in the world,” outside its 8 miles in the city. The former Paris bureau chief for the New York Times set about fixing that, in the way of a journalist “seduced by a river.” She takes us along in an engaging travelogue/memoir tracing the Seine’s 483 miles from its source to the sea.

She squelches in the Seine where it bubbles to the surface near an ancient temple in Burgundy. She swims in it after it becomes a river (but before it becomes polluted). She cruises it with police and river pilots, and commiserates with frustrated preservationists.

Readers will enjoy Sciolino’s expansive take on the Seine’s role in the history and culture of France, from the Romans to current filmmakers. We also learn some useful things: The river is a woman — “La Seine” — and she is pronounced SEN, not SANE.

It’s fitting that just before publication, Sciolino had time to update the book after an April 2019 fire set Notre Dame ablaze. As the world watched firefighters battling the flames, how many knew that half the water was being pumped from the Seine? If not for the river, the centuries-old cathedral could have been lost. Instead it was saved, as are many humans when they reach out to the Seine.

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