Two Girls in Paris: Jam Today by Oriel Malet (1957)

Oriel Malet was a success in the literary world at a very early age. She was just twenty when her first novel, ‘Trust in the Springtime’, was published and she was only three years older when her second book, ‘My Bird Sings’, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. 51p8RonqCTL__SX373_BO1,204,203,200_Her prize money bought her a motorcycle, and a trip to Paris.

‘Jam Today’ tells the story of the six months that the author spent in that city, with her good friend Flavia.

It’s a lovely book; light as air; made buoyant by youth, love, and charm.

The pair had no need to work or to study – though they take a few art classes and do a good bit of reading, for their own amusement and to impress their families – they were there to enjoy life, to explore the city, and to meet the people.

Their base was an apartment borrowed from a family friend:

“A flat in Paris had conjured up visions of a bare room close to the sky, perched like a bird’s nest in one of those tall dark houses on the Left Bank. Ours was in the seizième, close to the Bois du Boulogne. Many French people find this quarter convenient and pleasant to live in, but it is expensive and has blocks of exclusive flats with wrought-iron doorways, long streets full of parfumiers, and the kind of shop that has one hat on a stand in the window, against velvet curtains on little brass rails … We were not however prepared for the magnificence which greeted us when we pushed open the solid wooden doors of the Rue de la Faisanderie, and at first we stood rooted to the threshold with surprise. A great chandelier, like a tree bearing mysterious fruit, blazed down light upon the crimson carpet. A warm scent rose to greet us, that would always be associated with this place, this moment. It was a rich scent of wood fires, old furniture, and French cigarettes. The fire was in the salon, whose white walls flickered enticingly in the firelight.”

The concierge was warm and welcoming, but after their ascent in a lift ‘which looked like a great glass birdcage, and wobbled ominously when we stepped into it’ our heroines found that the central heating wasn’t working and that the housekeeper – claiming that she was too ill, with some unnamed malady – would not be supplying the meals that they had been promised.

Undaunted, they decided that a walk to the shops to buy provisions would warm them up, while the handyman sorted out the heating. It sounded simple, but in a strange country on a Sunday it was anything but. After a few ups and rather more downs the pair decided that maybe they should eat in a café.

“We could not help reflecting on the power of food; how beaming these people seemed, and how cross the cold travellers in the bus. Suddenly Flavia raised her glass in the air, and cried: “Vive la France!”

It was the only French she knew, apart from ‘oui’ and ‘non’ and ‘le metro.’  I was amazed, but our frieds at the new table were enchanted. Raising their glasses back, they shouted in reply: ‘Vive L’Angleterre!’ Flavia beamed, her eyes shining, her cheeks pink.

‘Paris in wonderful,’ she said”

That was the first adventure – the first of many.

The girls  somehow fell in with Ivan, a moody would-be poet, dramatist and artist at a drawing class. They entertained his aunt, who would never go anywhere without her horse, at their very first dinner party. They made friends with  runaway honeymooners, after  the dog they were walking stole and ate their lottery ticket. They wangled an invitation to tea with singer Yvonne Printemps…

The mixture of story, character and city is quite irresistible. I suspect that the author may have embroidered a little; but there’s a something about the way that the story ebbs and flows that tells me that she didn’t embroider too much, and that this book catches the essence of a special six months of her young life.

It’s vivid, it’s witty, and it’s utterly involving and engaging. The writing is lovely; and there’s light and shade, there’s thoughtfulness, as well as bags of youthful charm.

I’m sorry that ‘Jam Today’ is long out of print, and that Oriel Malet is so little read nowadays.

It took me quite some time to track down a copy, but it was worth it, it really was …

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