Between the Lines: “We’ll Always Have Paris”

| March 3, 2014 | 0 Comments


 Jennifer and Katie Coburn enjoy life time experiences in Paris.

Jennifer and Katie Coburn enjoy life time experiences in Paris.

That line from “Casablanca” is evoked frequently because it so beautifully expresses both past and future, wistfulness and hope. It’s often an exchange between lovers, but Jennifer Coburn has chosen the title for her just-released memoir about her travels with her daughter Katie.

The book spans four trips—to Paris, Italy, Spain, and Amsterdam with a return to Paris—starting when Katie was eight in 2005 and concluding last year when she’s 15. Their travels came about as a result of Jennifer’s fear of dying young and her desire to leave her daughter with “mental souvenirs” before it’s too late.

Jennifer’s narration of their adventures is laugh-out-loud funny, warm and touching—I thought of Nora Ephron and Anna Quindlen. Knowing just enough French to get in trouble, Jennifer tries to ask for help when her suitcase gets stuck in the Paris Metro. Instead of saying “I have a problem,” she blurts out “I am a problem.” When convincing her husband, William, that she and Katie need to go to Italy, she tells him that Italians have “the same joie de vivre as the French, but with pasta.” An exchange with an Italian practicing his English is hilarious but unprintable in a family publication.

Braided into the tales of their travels, Coburn has written moving vignettes of her own relationship with her father, who died of cancer when she was 19. I asked her if this was part of her original plan for the book: “I had no idea,” she said. She had intended to mention her father only to say that his premature death was the reason for her own fears of mortality, but the memories came flooding back and inserted themselves into the memoir. It makes for a richer story.

Coburn is an accomplished novelist and journalist, having had five successful novels published in the past ten years. She has written with humor and pathos about the travails of single women, young married life, motherhood and beyond. You might find bits of Jen herself, William, Katie and Jen’s extraordinary mother in her fictional characters.

She writes reviews and articles for newspapers and magazines. One of them, “Spend more time, not money, on kids,” might very well be the point of her memoir. It doesn’t have to be Paris or Rome, she says. Even if it’s a camping trip or a drive up the coast, it’s the focused time we spend with our children, the opportunities to make memories together, that will outlast any material things.

Among Katie’s favorite memories is their visit to the renowned Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. “There were tons of books, cozy places to read, and tucked away were cots where people could sleep if they didn’t have a hotel. I begged my mom to have a sleepover there and she said yes! She didn’t love it as much as I did, but spending the night in a bookstore was my idea of heaven.”

Last year in Amsterdam, Katie was the same age as Anne Frank was when she died. Coming away from Anne Frank House, after squeezing into the hidden annex where the Frank family spent two years, Coburn says she was faced with the senselessness of her own fears about death, the realization of her good fortune, the need to “Just let go and enjoy life.” Her theme, “We’ll always have Paris,” went from a great exit line to a promise, and to letting go of fear.

Katie is 16 now, and the family is concentrating on her last two years at Patrick Henry High School and not-too-distant college admissions. Coburn plans to write more articles, including one on mother-daughter travel, but another book isn’t in the pipeline during this time.

“We’ll Always Have Paris” will be the theme of an “Adventures by the Book” dinner, with Coburn reading and signing books, on March 30. More information is available at Sounds like a great bonding event to me—I think I’ll take my daughter.

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