Book Bag: ‘The Paris Affair’ by Susanne Dunlap; ‘Awakening and Visitation’ by Wally Swist

Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Paris Affair by Susanne Dunlap


Northampton writer Susanne Dunlap, author of numerous Young Adult historical novels whose settings range from medieval France to early 20th-century Russia, has also created a mystery series in recent years centered on a teenage violinist in late 18th-century Vienna, Theresa Schurman, who brushes up against famous composers such as Mozart and Haydn and the palace intrigue of the era.

For instance, in her second book in the series, “The Mozart Conspiracy,” Theresa lives at home with her mother and teaches violin students. But at night, she disguises herself as a young man and performs in pick-up orchestras across the city — and one evening, she comes upon the scene of a murder, in which the dying man’s last word is “Mozart.” Soon the feisty first-person narrator is ensnared in a complex mystery that shakes up the musical world.

In Dunlap’s newest book in the series, “The Paris Affair,” Theresa, now 19, finds herself in yet another volatile setting. It’s 1783, and the Austrian Emperor Joseph II himself asks Theresa to go to Paris to, in effect, be a spy. Marie Antoinette, the French queen and the emperor’s sister, has become the subject of slanderous rumors by some members of the French court, “which have inflamed the common people against her,” Joseph tells Theresa.

The emperor and another member of the Austrian upper class, the enigmatic Captain von Bauer — he’s a character from “the Mozart Conspiracy” and something of a thorn in Theresa’s side — believe her humble background and her “instinct for nosing out the most complicated and hidden conspiracies,” as Joseph puts it, will make her the ideal person to discover who’s bad-mouthing the queen and why.

And the rumors are bad: Among other things, they claim Marie Antoinette has dozens of lovers, drinks the blood of poor people, and holds satanic masses at the royal palace at Versailles.

Theresa is game for a new adventure and a different musical scene. But her first impression of Paris is hardly a romantic one: beggars, including many children, throng the muddy and narrow cobble-stoned streets, and the Seine River, full of garbage, gives off an awful stench. Theresa also finds her living quarters are in a bordello. It’s a good place for her to be inconspicuous, Captain Bauer tells her, and the bordello’s owner, Madame Chrétien, is actually part of the Austrian spy ring.

Despite her shock at her lodgings, Theresa is soon preparing for her new role, receiving lessons in court etiquette and advanced French from Madame Chrétien, who advises her that “Paris and Versailles are treacherous places where nothing is quite as it seems.” In one of the book’s many bits of sly humor, Captain Bauer also suggests she be less earnest and “effect an air of ennui” to seem more Parisian.

He and Madame Chrétien arrange for Theresa to work as a bookkeeper for the queen’s milliner, Rose Bertin, and before long she meets the queen to assist in one of her fittings; Marie Antoinette takes a liking to her. Theresa also befriends a black French aristocrat, the chevalier de Saint-Georges (a real-life figure who was the son of a white French nobleman and his African slave), a brilliant violinist and champion swordsman.

Dunlap keeps the pages turning as Theresa makes inroads among the queen’s enemies, in turn facing real danger from being discovered. There’s a bit of unexpected romance as well as an examination of class differences and the restrictions women faced in 18th-century France. In that sense, the likable Theresa brings a modern sensibility to the story.

As Dunlap has previously written, “Theresa ... doesn’t just solve mysteries, she encounters and tries to overcome systemic injustice of different kinds. This is the engine for her personal growth.”

Dunlap’s website is susanne-dunlap.com.

Awakening and Visitation by Wally Swist

by Shanti Arts Publishing

The newest collection by Amherst poet Wally Swist offers a wide range of work that he’s published in an equally wide range of publications: “Buddhist Poetry Review,” “The Galway Review” (in Ireland), “Modern Haiku,” “Peacock Journal” and others. “Awakening and Visitation” also features new poems and translations of Chinese and Japanese writing as well as reflections on subjects as diverse as nature, baseball, politics and the German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

In short, it’s the kind of eclectic body of work that Swist has long made his specialty, drawing on sources of inspiration that include nature, Eastern religions and philosophies, the world of literature and art, and a determination to try and live in the moment.

“Nine Innings,” as one example, shines with the good cheer and humor Swist can bring to his poetry. He suggests that he’s willing to cut the Red Sox some slack for the revelation last year that they were cheating by stealing signs because “they once had the Yale battery / of Breslow and Lavarnway on their roster, / which was an indication of intelligent baseball …

“Regarding Lavarnway, did you know // that he was a philosophy major? Imagine / someone catching for any big league team / who is said to have specialized in reading Hegel?”

“The Ultimate End of Summer Sandwich” is a bright ode to a careful assembly of baguette, tomato, onion, brie and salt and pepper; “Blue Chinese Vase” celebrates a beautiful keepsake that is also a symbol of long-term love; and “Cherry” contemplates the passage of time, the sense that the annual passing of cherry blossoms “is a commingling, gathering mist / of the visions of our ancestors ...”

And in “That Grace to Linger,” Swist touches on what has long been one of his strongest visions, that of finding harmony, peace and love in the beauty of the natural world. In this case it’s the “dulcet tone” and “clarity” of “a summer morning, particularly // in early June—sky a robin’s egg blue, a few / cumulus clouds slowly rolling by— // and amid the verdant green meadow / and the flowering saplings in the tree // break lay the vixen, eyes perky, ears / standing straight up, her tail flicking ...”

“This is poetry that is both universal and intimate, subtle and intense,” writes one reviewer. “Wally Swist here is at his finest and most brave, as a man and as an artist, revealing at every turn the essence of what it is to be fully and lovingly alive.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.