Love Letters from Paris
Montmartre – that famous hill on the northern edge of Paris, where tourists cluster around the street painters on the Place du Tertre as they create artworks of dubious quality, where couples ramble hand in hand through the lively springtime streets before sinking down a little breathless on the steps of the Sacré- Coeur, to gaze in amazement across the city shimmering in the final gentle rosy glow before nightfall – Montmartre is home to a cemetery. It is a very old cemetery, complete with dirt paths and long shady drives that meander under lindens and maples. It even uses names and numbers, which make it seem like a real town – a very silent town. Some of the people resting here are famous. You can find graves ornamented with artistic monuments and angelic figures in flowing stone garments, their arms gracefully outstretched, eyes fixed on the sky.
A dark- haired man enters the cemetery, holding the hand of a young boy. He stops at a grave known only to a few people. No one famous slumbers here. No author, musician or painter. This isn’t the Lady of the Camellias, either. Just someone who had been deeply loved.
Nonetheless, the angel on the bronze tablet attached to the marble gravestone is one of the loveliest here. The woman’s face – earnest, perhaps even serene – gazes out, her long hair billowing around her face as if being tossed by a wind at her back. The man stands there while the child scampers around the graves, stalking colourful wings.
‘Look, Papa. A beautiful butterfly!’ he cries. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’
The man gives an almost imperceptible nod. Nothing is beautiful to him any more, and he stopped believing in wonders long ago. There is no way he can know that here, of all places, something wonderful is going to happen, something that will actually come close to being a wonder. At this point, he feels like the unhappiest person on earth.
He had met his wife in this same Cimetière Montmartre, five years ago at Heinrich Heine’s grave. It had been a sun- drenched day in May, as well as the start of something that had been irretrievable
for some months now.
The man casts one last look at the bronze angel with the familiar features. He is writing secret letters, but he is unprepared for what will happen, just as unprepared as anyone can be for the arrival of happiness or love. And yet both of them are always there. As a writer, he actually should know that.
The man’s name is Julien Azoulay.
And I happen to be Julien Azoulay.
The world without you
I had just sat down at my desk to fulfil my promise and to finally, finally, write to Hélène, when the doorbell rang. I decided to ignore it, and instead unscrewed my fountain pen and straightened my piece of white paper.
‘Dear Hélène.’ I stared rather helplessly at the two words that stood there just as lost as I had been feeling for the past year.
How do you write to a person you love more than everything, but who no longer exists? I had suspected back then that I was crazy to make this promise, but Hélène had insisted, and like every other time my wife got something into her head, it was hard to argue against it. She always came out on top in the end. Hélène was very strong- willed. The only thing she’d been unable to defeat was death itself. Its will had been stronger than hers.
The doorbell chimed again, but I was already far away. I smiled bitterly and could still see her pale face and green eyes, which seemed to widen above her sunken cheeks with each passing day.
‘After I die, I want you to write me thirty- three letters,’ she had said, her eyes boring deep into mine. ‘One letter for each year of my life. Promise me this, Julien.’
‘But what good will it do?’ I replied. ‘It won’t bring you back.’
At that point, I was out of my mind with fear and anguish. I sat day and night beside Hélène’s bed, clinging to her hand, unwilling or unable to imagine a life without her.
‘Why write letters when I won’t ever get an answer? What would be the point?’ I continued quietly.
She acted as if she hadn’t heard my objection. ‘Just write to me. Describe what the world is like without me. Write about yourself and Arthur.’ She smiled as tears gathered in my eyes.
‘It will have a point, trust me. I’m sure that when all’s said and done, there’ll be an answer for you. And wherever I happen to be, I’ll read your letters and be watching out for both of you.’
I shook my head and started to weep.
‘I can’t do it, Hélène. I just can’t!’
I didn’t mean the thirty- three letters, but rather just everything. My entire life without her. Without Hélène.
She watched me with a gentle gaze, and the pity that shone from her eyes broke my heart.
‘My poor darling,’ she said, and I could feel how much effort it took for her to squeeze my hand encouragingly. ‘You have to be strong now, so you can take care of Arthur. He needs you so much.’
And then she said what she had said so many times over the past few weeks since that devastating diagnosis. Unlike me, this admission seemed to give her the strength to face the end with serenity.
‘We all have to die, Julien. It’s completely normal and part of life itself. I’ve just reached this point a little earlier than expected. I’m not happy about it, believe me, but it’s just the way it is.’ She gave a helpless shrug. ‘Come here and kiss me.’
I brushed a coppery curl back from her forehead and pressed my lips gently against hers. She had grown so fragile over these final months of a life cut far too short. Every time I gingerly hugged her, I was scared I might break something, even though pretty much everything was already destroyed. Only her courage stayed intact, and it was much stronger than my own.
‘Promise,’ she ordered once more, and I caught a little glint in her eyes. ‘I bet that by the time you’ve written the last letter, your life will have taken a turn for the better.’
‘I’m afraid you’ll lose this bet.’
‘I promise you I won’t.’ A knowing smile flickered across her face, and her eyelids fluttered. ‘And when that happens, I want a giant bouquet of roses from you – the biggest in the whole damned Cimetière Montmartre.’
That was Hélène. Even in the lowest of moments, she managed to make you smile. I cried and laughed at the same time, as she held out her frail hand. I shook it and gave her my word.
'Enchanting. Reading Barreau is like having me-time with your best friend' NINA GEORGE, author of The Little Paris Bookshop
'Heart-breaking . . . touching and magical until the very last page' ELLE
Julien Azoulay is famous around the world for his beautiful romance novels. But last year, he stopped believing in love. When his beloved wife Hélène died, leaving him alone to raise his young son, Julien lost his faith in the happier side of life - and with it his ability to write.
But Hélène was clever. Before she died, she made Julien promise to write her one letter for each year of her life . . . and now, in this moment, in the most famous cemetery in Paris, Julien stands with his painful first letter in his hand. Here, even though Julien wouldn't believe it, something wonderful is going to happen . . .
Come with us down the narrow streets, past the cosy red bistro on Rue Gabrielle, all the way to Montmartre cemetery with its beautiful stone angels, and discover the truth we all hope to find: that love is real, that miracles can happen and - most of all - that it's never too late to rediscover your dreams.
LOVE LETTERS FROM MONTMARTRE is an ode to love, Paris and friendship. A love letter to readers and to anyone who believes in the healing power of the written word.
**An ELLE Book of the Month**
Find out why readers are falling in love with Nicolas Barreau
'A genuine pleasure. A perfect gift for a Francophile, or just anyone else who is looking for a charming good time' Library Journal
'The book itself carries the heart of Paris within its pages' RT Book Reviews
'Enchanting . . . romantic' Booklist
'Rarely has the French metropolis been described in more poetic terms' Freundin
'Beaucoup de charme!' Ellen Sussman, bestselling author of French Lessons
'A wonderful gift, a magical book' SAT 1
'Dream-like, beautiful' taz
'A book to warm your heart' Rheinische Post