Dreaming of April in Paris? In How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City, astute cultural observer Joan DeJean argues that Paris has been a modern, alluring city far longer than we usually imagine. Although we tend to think of 19th-century Paris as the bustling epitome of “la vie moderne,” the roots of all we know and love about Paris today actually came into being in the 17th century.

While DeJean’s depth and scope of research are impressive, this fascinating portrait is anything but a dry history. Like its subject, DeJean’s biography of Paris emanates charm and wit. She builds her argument for the 17th-century origins of modern Paris piece by piece, unraveling the stories of how the city’s architectural elements helped to shape its urban landscape to make it “the capital of the universe.”

She begins with the oldest bridge in Paris—the Pont Neuf—which served as the 17th century’s equivalent to the Eiffel Tower (which wasn’t erected until 1889). Created by Henry IV as a center for his new capital, the Pont Neuf ushered in the concept of modern street life, including a sidewalk for promenading and street vendors.

DeJean unveils fascinating details about other aspects of the emerging city, covering the Place des Vosges, the enchanted oasis of Ile Saint-Louis and the city’s great boulevards and parks. What makes DeJean’s analysis so intriguing is her capacity to weave strands of history together. She shows, for example, how the freedom women achieved by walking along the Pont Neuf and the city’s boulevards translated into other areas of social discourse. With such rich context, How Paris Became Paris is more than a history: It’s the best kind of travel guidebook.

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