I’m very pleased to share another special feature on my blog. Having read and loved Isabel Costello’s debut novel, Paris Mon Amour, I had some questions for the novel’s protagonist. I caught up with her in a café over the weekend.
INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDRA FOLGATE, NARRATOR OF PARIS MON AMOUR
Can you describe your initial reactions to learning your husband was having an affair?
I was devastated and shocked, even though I had suspected it for some time. Denial makes the truth even harder to face when it finally comes out. Before we met, Philippe had been through an acrimonious divorce, losing touch with his daughter; my fiancé had left me because I couldn’t have children. Philippe and I used to make each other happy. It’s amazing what we both did to destroy that.
Do you think a marriage can survive an affair? If so, how?
Every couple is different. In Paris there are probably marriages that survive because both spouses are having affairs. Philippe and I absolutely didn’t have that kind of relationship. When affairs cause pain (which I think is the more likely outcome, the whole world over), both people have to really want to stay together. It’s hard to come back from that betrayal of intimacy, that breakdown of trust. I was a typical ‘Anglo-Saxon’ who believed cheating is wrong. It didn’t stop me doing it and awful as it may sound, I can’t say I entirely regret it. How could I?
We learn early on that your brother, Christopher, died as a child. Can you tell us how this affected you? And your life?
Christopher’s death (when he was eight years old and I was 10) changed everything for me and my parents. I was the only witness. We all lost each other, in every possible sense. I also lost who I would have become, and in my mind she is everything I am not. For all kinds of reasons I held back from facing my grief for a long time. It put me at arms’ length from all my emotions. It wasn’t until last year that I realised I wasn’t fully alive.
Your feelings towards your mother are complex. Can you tell us about them, and how they may have evolved during your life?
For thirty years, everything between mom and me was about Christopher. Her grief was overwhelming; she held me responsible, and of course I blamed myself. When I look back on the rest of my so-called childhood – mostly at boarding school in England, little contact with either parent – I could weep for that poor girl. I never used to feel that compassion; it began when I unexpectedly had to deal with Philippe’s 17-year-old daughter, Vanessa, and could see myself in her. I never thought things would change with my mother.
Do you think you would have had sex with Jean-Luc if you hadn’t learned of Philippe’s affair?
This is something I agonised over, trying to rationalise what I was doing with Jean-Luc, to excuse it on the grounds that Philippe had cheated on me first. I will never know for sure and it makes no difference. The fact is, I was sleeping with the son of my husband’s best friend, not just anyone, so I was jeopardising more than my marriage. And it wasn’t ‘just sex’ – I even broke my own rules.
What was it that drew you to Jean-Luc?
I won’t try to dress this up: I felt this powerful, derailing physical attraction for him. I was doing my best to suppress these troubling fantasies until we found ourselves alone and I had the thrill of him wanting me. Sex with Jean-Luc uncovered a disinhibited, sensual side to me I didn’t know was there. Desire like that takes over your body and floods your brain. I craved that man and the way he made me feel, enough to risk everything.
As someone who is half-American, half-British, how did you find living in Paris?
I adored Paris from the first moment I went there, on a school trip when I was fifteen years old. Even before all this, the city always touched something very deep in me. It’s home to the greatest highs and lows of my life, the place I fell desperately in love. I miss it so much but it’s hard to imagine ever going back.
Had you, Philippe and Jean-Luc been living in another country and city, do you think events would have taken the same course?
No! That is simply unimaginable. They were Parisians (even if Philippe is originally from here, in Nice), Paris is where I met them, where it all played out. There’s something about the place that fuelled the passion and intensity of it all.
When we first see you, you are heading to your psychoanalyst. What was it like having analysis, and did you find it helpful?
I don’t think I would still be here without it. When I was a child in California, the idea of talking about tragic events appalled me, so I never did. As an adult I’ve discovered that difficult and exhausting as it is, analysis is less painful than shouldering everything on my own. My analyst doesn’t know me outside that room; she’s not there to judge me and being completely honest is very liberating. It’s helped me understand that making terrible mistakes doesn’t make me a terrible person. None of us can change what happened so finding a way to live with it is our best hope. I’m starting to believe in blue sky again.
Thanks so much, Alexandra.
My review of the novel will follow in a few days.
You can find Isabel’s publisher here. You can find her on Twitter here: @isabelcostello