Paris - and a reason for reading.


Even blanketed with grey cloud Paris was glorious this weekend, when I raced there for a whistlestop book signing. There was champagne and exquisite patisserie, a saxophonist rendering Purcell and Britten afresh, and of course The Eiffel Tower - glimpsed here from the seventh floor of le BHV Marais, in whose vast book department I was interviewed about La Meillure d'Entre Nous or The Art of Baking Blind.

I was there with the award-winning literary novelist Kerry Hudson to celebrate the Best of British culture in an event organised by the British Embassy, but in the run-up to going I wasn't sure if I should be there. I confirmed my tickets the day before the terrorist attacks - and I doubted anyone would want it to go ahead. Why would Parisiens want to visit a department store to hear a novelist discuss her book about why we bake - at first glance, a frivolous subject - when they had so many more pressing issues on their minds?

And then I talked to a Parisian friend who had read my book and she banished my self doubt.  Your book is about women going on a process of self-discovery, she said, and becoming stronger. About one woman, in particular, who finally rejects the domineering man in her life when she realises she can be much happier alone. It's about abandoning rigid expectations, including our own pressure to be perfect, and about our need for love - or, at the very least, for understanding. It celebrates kindness and empathy - two of the things the terrorists attacked.

Of course, reading itself, is one way to increase that empathy: to open ourselves up to new experiences and emotions, glimpsed through the pages of a book, within the safety of our own homes. In schoolgirl French, I tried to explain that "nous devons celebrer la cuisine, celebrer less femmes et leur fragilites, celebrer l'impossibiltie de la perfection et l'importance d'être aime. Et lisons plus et toujours plus de livres."

And then I finished Kerry Hudson's disquieting, poignant Thirst - about a sex-trafficked Ukrainian girl who finds love with an emotionally-damaged security guard, two characters the likes of whom I am unlikely to come across in real life. And it confirmed something every reader knows: that, at the risk of sounding sanctimonious, books, far from being frivolous, are the passports to our trying to live a more compassionate, empathetic life.