Caught between the unresolved past and a desire for happiness in the present, literature professor Eleanor Cahn is presented with an opportunity that she cannot resist Ė an invitation to a ten-day conference in Paris, where she will deliver a paper on Tolstoyís Anna Karenina.
Leaving her two young sons and heart surgeon husband behind in New York, Eleanor joins her colleagues for an adventure that allows her to ponder the past loves of her life, meeting a childhood sweetheart in Paris while she is in that fabled city. On this brief respite, she relives the affairs that helped define her choices as an adult woman.
Living a bifurcated existence as a professional woman who is also a wife and mother, Eleanor is torn by the enforced restrictions of her career, albeit choices willingly made. In Paris, removed form the familiarity of home, Eleanor, like her colleagues, separates from her New York identity, temporarily unmoored from family ties and obligations, most evident in the journal she keeps while in that evocative city.
Stephen Mason, Eleanorís first love, is the road not taken, their budding attraction of preadolescence never consummated, the thread of romance still a viable tension between them. Stephen is now an aspiring writer, soon to be published and attracted to Eleanorís accomplishments.
One of the most memorable of Eleanorís loves is a married artist, an older man immersed in his work and predictably in love with his models. Eleanor falls under this manís spell while posing for him as a student, the shabby and cluttered studio a backdrop for their passionate affair. But in revealing her past, Eleanor comes at last to the core of her issues: the adoration of a flawed father who is tortured by the decimation of his Jewish family in the pogroms.
Rather than drag his family through his depression and despair, Eleanorís father leaves wife and daughter, finding comfort in drink and the arms of younger women. His abandonment never resolved, Eleanorís mother remains a living shrine to her husbandís long suffering, the daughter pursuing oblivion in inappropriate romances with commitment-phobic men.
That Eleanor has one blue eye and one green further illustrates the dichotomy of her existence, the internal war of appearance versus reality, her husband unaware of the deep emotions that have so far failed to surface in the marriage. But Paris releases both memory and a yearning to delve once more into the explosive emotions that surge beneath Eleanorís academic faÁade. Freud runs screaming from the room.
Bialoskyís angst-riddled prose is frequently defined by a precocious self-awareness, the ties to Kareninaís tragedy vaguely attaching to Eleanorís life and resistance to self-examination. Both Madonna and lover, mother and wanton, this modern woman is caught in a frantic dance on the head of a pin until she literally falls exhausted into expectations.