Paris, 7 A.M.
Fiction steps in where a diary feared to tread. 1937, a year famously absent from the journals of Elizabeth Bishop—celebrated American poet and lesbian icon—is reimagined in this novel, whose poetic beauty and lyricism do its subject proud. The narrative begins with Elizabeth as a student at Vassar and culminates in Paris, where she travels with her friend Louise in order to celebrate her graduation and the publication of her first volume of verse. All is well until Margaret, Elizabeth’s object of desire, joins her in the city of light, and a violent accident drives a wedge between the young women, upsetting the fragile balance of their relationship. In the meantime, the Nazi government is persecuting Jews, homosexuals, and other minorities in nearby Germany, whose victims increasingly seek refuge in France.
Elizabeth is drawn both to Sigrid, an enigmatic bohemian, as well as to Clara, a glamorous cosmopolitan, who involves her in an underground operation, smuggling Jewish ‘orphans’ out of the fatherland. Having lost her daughter, Clara mothers Elizabeth. Elizabeth, in turn, is fascinated by Clara, since she has never recovered from her mother’s mental illness and continues to be haunted by her memory.
This novel resembles a puzzle-box of startlingly beautiful as well as terrifying poetic images and extended allegories, whose meanings are subtly hinted at, rather than spelled out. Thus, Greta Angel and her little white pony will remain in the reader’s memory, both for the moving depiction of human violence and the animal’s doting innocence contained in the episode. As everywhere in the novel, the twin themes of maternal devotion and cruelty loom large. A novel written against the backdrop of the looming conflict, Paris, 7 A.M. is a contemplation on female creativity and its origins in the complex bond between mothers and their daughters.