Ah, Paris! "Like a hauntingly alluring and exacting mistress, Paris has never quite left me," reveals eminent British historian Alistair Horne in a prelude to his new Gallic oeuvre, The Seven Ages of Paris. The author of numerous epic volumes of French military history, Horne now trains a fond and omniscient eye on his tempestuous muse, crafting a superb study of a street-wise seductress, in all her glorious and atavistic guises.

This luminous, compelling portrait of Paris, her culture and her citizens is a masterful work of chiaroscuro. Horne's fine, fluid prose gradually reveals the startling, Janus-like nature of la belle Paris, a city with the siren power to beguile and repel, shock and amuse. The author chooses an idiosyncratic approach: This is not an all-embracing history of Paris, but "a series of linked biographical essays depicting seven ages in the long, exciting life of a sexy and beautiful . . . turbulent, troublesome and sometimes excessively violent woman." First come the conquering dynasties of monarchs, then the storms of revolution, the autocratic Napoleonic Empires and the 20th century rise of a New Republic.

The streets and monuments of Paris come vividly to life. We witness horrific witch burnings in the Place de Greve, cower with tyrannized kings in the Tuileries Palace, and shiver in the deadly conflagration of Nazi bombs.

Horne has created a worthy reference work and an enlightening traveling companion for those who plan to stroll the venerable boulevards of Paris. Though the author, rather enigmatically, ends this history with de Gaulle's final exit in 1969, there may be, eventually, an analysis of Mitterrand's Paris and beyond. But for Horne, this attempt might be premature; perhaps, in the words of Mao's Prime Minister Chou En-lai, speaking about the impact of China's Great Revolution, it is "too early to tell." Alison Hood writes from San Rafael, California.

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