McCullough writes social history with a relentless focus on documents -- in some ways, it's a very traditional way to write a less traditional kind of history, and the results are mixed. On the one hand, it's clear from others (this was last month's book club selection in Mayberry, NH <-- not its real name) that paragraph after paragraph of Facts can leave the reader wondering what the hell the point of it all is. On the other hand, it does keep the author from getting too carried away.
McCullough's time frame is 1830ish to 1903 or so. The place is mostly Paris (and actually a fairly limited chunk of Paris, come to think of it), with occasionally forays to London and the US to follow characters who travel back and forth. This is sort of a biography of the 19th century expatriate community in Paris, detailing its genesis, development over time, influence on others, crises, etc. Inevitably, it is mostly about artists, altho McCullough found Elihu Washbourne's diary covering the Franco-Prussian war (like, every fucking day of it), so if you've always glazed over at that bit of history (or wondered why no one seemed to feel like describing it in any detail), here's your chance. There is a chunk about medical students, but that's mostly the beginning of the time frame, because that early crop of medical students set up medical schools in the US so no one would have to go learn everything in Paris and in French, to boot.
I was a little bummed that McCullough sort of drew a curtain over 1860-65. I _think_ I know why he did. It's bad enough learning how the Franco-Prussian war happened (never mind the aftermath with the Commune and its aftermath); at least that's not going to feel totally personal to an average American reader. I'm fairly certain that if I read a detailed description of what the French got up to in support of the Confederacy, I wouldn't have even bothered to finish the book. But it felt a little dishonest, particularly in the context of his not really getting into Morse's political position on abolition.
McCullough goes to some effort to cover women who were part of the community (artists, medical students, writers, patrons of the arts) and the (rare) person of color as well.
Towards the end, in the context of the various Expositions/Worlds Fairs, McCullough covers technological innovation such as the telegraph, electric lights, the automobile. He does a passing job of explaining how technology influenced travel (going from sailings that were _really_ just sail, to steam crossings; going from the diligence to rail, etc. -- and a nice description of the diligence and a picture as well!), altho he's clearly more excited by the idea of crap flying all over the cabin in a storm than anything else about the crossing. McCullough also seems obsessed with the work ethic of most -- but not all -- of the people he describes.
I was disappointed that McCullough didn't mention Oliver Wendell Holmes' Srs early work on puerperal fever. I mean, _really disappointed_. His work predated Semmelweis and Lister, and on his late-age return visit to Paris, the Big Outing was to visit Louis Pasteur and shake his hand. If you don't even freaking mention the work, that visit just seems like one-famous-guy-meets-another, rather than, oldest soldier in the epic struggle reaching out to the man who won the war.
It's long. It's a little rambly. But if you read it, you'll learn a lot, and I didn't actually find any errors of commission (I'm not saying there aren't any -- I just didn't spot any, which is sort of amazing), and my complaints of omission shouldn't be taken too seriously.
Let's take a look at other reviews.
Honestly, you read that and you wonder why anyone gets so excited by a review in the NYT. Maslin had the trouble that my book club comrades had: identifying the theme(s). The central difficulty here is whether or not a loose community such as the expat community in Paris is a tight enough topic for a book at all. Given that was what McCullough chose, he did a fantastic job. A lot of readers had trouble with it, which makes it questionable. What I told my club was this: survey histories of Paris/France tend to go sort of like this: tribes, Roman outpost, province of Gaul, Charlemagne etc., the invention of the university, a bunch of kings many with ambitions, the rise of the bourgeoisie, the Revolution, Napoleon and his defeat ... Franco-Prussian something or other ... oh, yeah, Haussman rebuilt Paris, mumble about relatives of Napoleon, WW1, the interwar period, WW2 and the Vichy, etc.
What McCullough did was fill in the ... part, coherently enough to stick in one's head. If he hadn't been so wedded to a documentary approach, he could have written something much shorter that talked about how Paris was essentially a city full of highly-skilled, highly-talented and highly-educated people pulled from all of France and around the world, and Americans went there, too. Because Americans had more to spend than a lot of other people, they were disproportionately influential. Alas, that would have been perceived by everyone as a provincial screed written by a bunch of mushrooms from the New World.
The New Republic has a take roughly like mine: this is an unmined period in Paris' history, and not because of a lack of supporting documents. David Bell liked the medical student section best. I assume he had better textbooks than I had, based on this:
"The major events in the city’s history—the 1848 revolution, Haussmann’s boulevards, the Franco-Prussian War, the construction of the Eiffel Tower—pass by in familiar textbook fashion." Er, there was a _ton_ of detail in all of that. He also notes the absence of coverage of the Dreyfus affair and religious politics in the latter half. Bell's remark about McCullough's handling of Pierre-Charles-Alexandre Louis seems a little silly to me. Re epidemiology, McCullough didn't use the word, but clearly depicts the behavior. Re bleeding, well, maybe that part is a bit more valid as an omission. Bell's a bit of a snob; he thinks you should go get a reader and just read some of McCullough's sources and skip the book. Obvs, if the author doesn't dig around in French libraries to research his book, you should just avoid _all possible_ historical context and make sense of a handful of diary excerpts all on your own.
It was important enough a publication to justify not one, but two!!! NYT reviews, one in the Sunday Book Review (the previous, Maslin's, was in Books of the Times).
Schiff actually kind of liked the book and put it in context in McCullough's body of work. Having emphasized the influence of the French on the US, here's more! Her review is a capsule summary of the contents of the book (oddly, containing French phrases that McCullough actually left out of the book, but which are wholly appropriate); if you wanted to pretend you read the thing, without actually reading it, memorize this review and you should be good.
Michael Sims' review over at WaPo takes a similar, summary approach:
He actually mentions McCullough's writing style (mixed opinion: Sims' thought it was a good thing there were so many quotes. "This symphony of diverse voices lifts the book’s tone above the workmanlike level of the author’s own narration." But he also acknowledges, "McCullough’s plain-speaking tone is at its best in such scenes [desperate pregnant women during the Franco-Prussian war], which easily might have been overplayed. Elsewhere his description of the horrors of medical dissection is more powerful because of this kind of understatement." And he thought that McCullough did a good job keeping the reader moving along despite the massive cast and loose connectivity -- which is true! Even the book club members who didn't much care for it and couldn't see the point were able to finish it, which is never a given.
Sims' has the neatest summary of the theme: "we share McCullough’s enthusiasm for the city and his affection for the many Americans who improved their lives, their talent and their nation by drinking at the fountain that was Paris."
However, The Seattle Times' review by Kevin J. Hamilton produces this gem:
"The idea of telling the story of the French cultural contribution to America through the eyes of a generation of aspiring artists, writers and doctors is inspired, and McCullough draws on untapped historical sources to tell the story, against the roiling backdrop of a French military coup and a new Emperor (Louis Napoleon), a disastrous war with Germany that included a siege of Paris (setting the stage for WWI) and the horrific Paris Commune that followed."
That's a complete review right there! (The rest of the review is heavy on summary.) It perfectly captures a documentary social history, with the inversion of the traditional histories foreground/background. Here, it is the middling sort in the foreground, with the politics and war in the background. And it beautifully contextualizes why McCullough thought this story was important to tell (having hammered away at it on the American side for book after book, here was a whole new angle).
Hamilton wasn't as thrilled with the implementation, however: the cast too large, too much missing, too much focus on art.
So: depending on the reviewer you pick, either there's no theme, or a clear one. Everyone agrees that the topic, defined or undefined, is unwieldy. The book makes a great deal of sense within the larger body of the author's work and we're all grateful he dug up Washbourne's diary.