At an elemental level, “Perestroika in Paris,” by Jane Smiley, is the story of four characters: Paras, a curious young racehorse; Frieda, a dignified but lonely dog; Raoul, an aging raven, and Eitienne, an unschooled, wise-beyond-his years 8-year-old boy who lives with his deaf and blind great-grandmother. All live near or within the Place du Trocadero, an area filled with plazas, shops and restaurants frequented by tourists who can walk to the Eiffel Tower just across the Seine.
On a more profound level, this is a story of chance happenings and unforeseen opportunities, kindness, friendship and the need of all species to be cared for and treated with dignity and compassion.
Paras’ curiosity has led her out of her stall at the Auteuil Racecourse late at night and into the nearby City of Lights. Following an exhilarating hour of meandering, she discovers new grasses, ponds, sounds and smells. Paras happens upon Frieda and Rauol who inhabit the natural landscapes which surround the Eiffel Tower, or as they call it, the “brilliant four-legged thing.”
Frieda’s homeless owner has recently died on the banks of the Seine. It was a sad day when Frieda watched his body and guitar placed into a truck by the gendarme. Frieda is kept company and given advice by Rauol, the talkative raven, gladly offering his years of wisdom with whomever will listen.
Frieda’s forays through the plaza lead her to the nearby butcher and baker. There he uses his good manners and expressive eyes to beg food from the owners. Rauol’s ability to scavenge from untidy humans introduces him to the sight of Etienne and his great-grandmother doing their marketing. Frieda notices them, too.
Raoul and Frieda realize Paras is in great danger of being discovered by those who may not have her best interests at heart. The raven and dog have followed Etienne home several times and know there might be safety there. They guide Paras to an overgrown garden behind the walls that protect the old mansion where Etienne and his great-grandmother live.
In a magical telling, Etienne invites Paras into the house where he feeds her, where Paras learns to turn on the kitchen spigot for water, and where the resident rat befriends the horse. Etienne faithfully cares for his grandmother but manages to keep the horse in a large empty room where Paras sleeps much of the day. Etienne leaves a door open so Paras can come and go as he pleases.
When the lives of the humans and animals are threatened with lockups, separations and command performances, Raoul leads them to a place where they will be cared for and protected forever.
Throughout the novel, Smiley uses the animals' conversations and observations to reflect upon the human condition and the unpredictability of life. This book is calm, wise, creative, and nuanced. It is the perfect read to illustrate the cycle of life and the desperate need we feel at this time for kindness, compassion and love for one another.