The Paris Novel

Ruth Reichl

April 23, 2024 
The following is from Ruth Reichl's The Paris Novel. Reichl is the New York Times bestselling author of five memoirs, the novel Delicious!, and the cookbook My Kitchen Year. She was editor in chief of Gourmet magazine and previously served as restaurant critic for The New York Times, as well as food editor and restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times. She has been honored with six James Beard Awards. In 2024, she received the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award.

Lilacs, rain, a hint of bitter chocolate: Stella sniffed the air as she entered the small shop, enjoying the soft golden light that enfolded her. A bell pealed, an old-fashioned sound that gave her the oddest feeling, as if she had stepped off the Paris sidewalk and straight out of time.

A curious old woman, whose beautifully manicured hands contrasted with her severe haircut and drab dress, was seated at a small oak table, wearing a smile that looked simultaneously reluctant and triumphant. Cat, Stella thought, canary.

At the sight of Stella, the woman’s face lit up and she leapt from her seat. “I have been waiting for you.” Her voice was deep, gravelly, the words emerging as if rusted from disuse. “What took you so long?” Her reproachful tone implied that Stella was shamefully late for an important appointment.

Stella was stunned. Perhaps the woman had confused her with someone else. Maybe she was crazy. Stella backed toward the door, reaching for the knob. But when the woman cried “Stop!” her voice was so imperious that Stella obeyed. The two stood for a moment, eyeing each other.

It was Stella’s first day in Paris. She’d stumbled blearily through the morning streets, jet-lagged and wishing she hadn’t come. The remaining days of her trip stretched before her, a vast uncharted landscape. What would she do with herself, alone in this unfamiliar city? Back in her apartment in New York she’d done her homework, walking her fingers across maps of Paris so she’d know her way around. But now, traversing actual Paris streets, she felt disquieted. Leaving the quaint hotel in the Latin Quarter, she’d tried to shake anxiety off by joining the stream of tourists crossing the Seine.

She had passed Notre-Dame—one day she’d go inside—and recited the name of each bridge as she crossed it. Yet despite her preparation she felt like an alien. She didn’t understand the language. She knew nobody. What was she doing here?

Heading to the Place des Vosges, she’d wondered if it would be as lovely as the guidebooks promised. “Le Pavillon de la Reine,” she had whispered to herself, as she began circumnavigating the ancient square. The stones seemed to be breathing ancient air, she thought as she surveyed the orderly little park with its tidy fountain. When she ducked into the arcade, she spotted a shop with Robes des Rêves etched in gold across the antique glass and stopped to study the ornate letters. There was a single dress in the window, waves of fabric in the most extraordinary shade of violet. Velvet? It looked so soft that Stella had longed to touch it. She had opened the door.

Now the proprietress was staring at her with that peculiarly Parisian arrogance. Her rudeness made Stella so uncomfortable she looked away, eyes darting around the shop. The walls, thickly layered with vintage garments, turned the crowded space into a time machine, as if the city’s entire history were spelled out in chiffon, linen, silk, and lace. Her eye fell on an austere wartime uniform standing stiffly at attention and moved on to a Pucci pantsuit in colors so exuberant she imagined it leaping from the hanger and boogying out the door. The woman simply watched, saying nothing. The small white dog at her side was equally alert. The silence stretched, uncomfortable.

What did I do? Stella thought, convinced, as usual, that she had done something wrong. She stood hesitating for a moment, then headed toward the violet dress in the window, brushing past an Edwardian lace-trimmed peignoir, a bugle-beaded flapper dress, a silk shawl the color of dawn. She reached to touch the dress.

“Stop!” the woman cried again.

Stella jumped away, put her hands behind her back, apologized. “I’m sorry.” She could see, up close, that the antique dress was very frail.

“We have been waiting.” The words were even more reproachful now, almost angry.

“I’m sorry?” This time it was a question.

“We have been waiting for you.” The woman repeated the words, louder and slower, as if volume could compensate for vocabulary. Then, with a contemptuous look—clearly she thought Stella impossibly stupid—and an impatient wave of her hand, she vanished into a back room. The dog sat, body quivering, ears pricked, eyes on Stella, daring her to move. Stella stood very still. An eternity passed before the woman returned, balancing a long flat box on outstretched arms.

“Come!” She gestured imperiously. When Stella did not move, the woman set the box down, took her hand, and began towing her inexorably toward a curtained area in the corner of the room. The little dog followed, nosing the box forward along the floor.

Bewildered, Stella did not resist; perhaps this was the way all Paris shopkeepers behaved? “Your dress”—the woman pulled Stella into the makeshift dressing room and turned her roughly around—“is from the fifties.” In the hazy mirror Stella caught sight of her own reflection. Slim, boyish body in neatly pressed jeans; cool gray eyes; straight brown hair falling to her shoulders. White shirt, tweed jacket. She took off the jacket, slowly unbuttoned the shirt, and slipped it off as the woman tugged at Stella’s jeans. As her bare stomach emerged, Stella crossed her hands to hide it. In her adult life nobody had touched her in such an intimate manner, and she felt her cheeks grow red with embarrassment. The woman gave a small, disapproving shake of the head. “Do you think I have never seen a naked woman before? Me, who once dressed the great models as they prepared for the runway?”

Muttering to herself, the woman bent down, opened the box, and began peeling off layers of soft tissue. The sound was like Christmas. She lifted a cloud of fabric and began to carefully unfasten tiny buttons on the back of the garment, releasing each one with surgical precision. “I was at Dior the year this dress was made.” Baffled and intrigued, Stella leaned in to hear the words. “It was the first year Monsieur Saint Laurent was with us—he was only twenty-one—but even then we knew he had the talent. This was his first design for the house of Dior, and as I helped the great vedette Victoire Doutreleau into this dress, Monsieur Saint Laurent fussed about, tugging at the fabric, looking distressed.”

She paused, looking off into the distance. Stella waited. “But when Victoire walked onto the runway, the entire audience gasped. We all heard it. Monsieur Saint Laurent gave that little smile of his that was so rare. We knew at once that this dress was”—she searched for the word—“magique. So imagine to yourself my joy, all these years later, when that very dress waltzes into my shop. Ici, chez moi!” She shook her head, unable to believe her luck, and her mouth did something that was meant to be a smile. “I had not seen it for almost thirty years, but when I opened the box, it was like meeting an old friend.”

Humming softly, she tossed the dress over Stella’s head, blocking the light. In the darkness Stella became conscious that the fabric was infused with the scent of apricots and vanilla. Slightly dizzy, she thought of Dorothy in the field of poppies.

The woman was still talking. “But I knew that this dress was not for everyone. And so I packed it away. And I waited.” She looked down, addressing the dog. “Zaza, am I not patient?” The dog regarded her with bright black eyes, ears cocked forward in silent assent. “I knew the right person would appear. And when you walked through the door, Mademoiselle, my heart gave a little leap. I knew, mais tout de suite, that your dress had found its destiny.”

What a sales pitch! thought Stella. Does she do this with everyone? Does anybody buy it? She wondered what extraordinary story the woman would manufacture next.

“You know, both Monsieur Dior and Monsieur Saint Laurent occasionally gave their dresses names. Pas toujours, just the special ones. There was an Artemise. A Zemire. A Laurette. But this dress was different. After that gasp from the audience, Monsieur Dior came into the atelier and reached out, fingering the fabric as he walked around and around the model. ‘This dress is Victoire,’ he said at last, and Victoire gave us all a pitying smile. It was a rare honor.”

She continued, eyes on Stella. “But Monsieur Dior shook his head and patted Victoire’s arm. ‘It is just for now. Pardon, ma chère, but this dress is changeable as perfume. A chameleon that will look different on each woman. And so it will always bear the name of its wearer.’”

“So the dress is named Victoire?”

The old woman shook her head.

“How do they call you?”


“How perfect! This dress is now Stella.” She dropped to her knees, preventing further conversation. Her nimble fingers were light as butterflies as they moved slowly up Stella’s back, closing the buttons. When Stella tried to look into the mirror, the fingers changed, clamping down like iron bars, holding her in place. “Not yet!”

She didn’t mind. As each tiny button snuggled into its hole, the dress became an embrace, the cloth warm and soft against her skin, comforting as a lullaby. Stella closed her eyes and surrendered to the sensation.

“You can look now.” Startled, Stella opened her eyes. She had been somewhere else.

The person in the mirror was no one she had ever met. Slim, boyish Stella was gone. In her place stood an exotic creature who looked as if an aria—“Casta Diva,” perhaps—would come pouring out when she opened her mouth. The dress had turned her into a woman of such voluptuous promise that it transformed every feature. Stella’s pale, serious face now looked touchingly sensual. She had never bothered with makeup, but her lips now begged for a slash of red. Her gray eyes had gone smoky, mysterious rather than drab, and even her mousy hair suddenly seemed sleek and glossy. Stella stared at this woman who was nothing like herself.

“Et voilà!” The little saleslady was fierce. “Did I not tell you this was your dress? Would you not prefer to be this beautiful woman rather than the ordinary creature who walked in my door?”

“How much?” Stella whispered the words. She had always been a caterpillar, but now, suddenly, she longed to be a butterfly.

“Fifty thousand francs.” The woman’s voice was brusque. She snapped her fingers contemptuously beneath Stella’s nose. “A mere nothing for a piece of art, a slice of history.” She opened her hands in a benevolent gesture. “But I will make you a bargain. If you pay in dollars, I will give you a good rate. The banks offer seven and a half francs, but me, I will make it eight.”

Stella stared at the woman in the mirror as she did the calculation. Six thousand dollars? For a dress? She had the money—Celia’s money, every penny her mother had left her—but could she be the kind of person who spent it on a dress? She turned again to the woman in the mirror, yearning to be her. But it was wrong. She was not a frivolous person who wasted money on clothing. She took one last look and turned away, relinquishing the vision. “This dress”—the words were reluctant—“belongs in a museum.”

“No dress belongs in a museum!” The saleslady reached out and patted the dress, as if consoling a wounded creature. “Dresses are created to be worn. And this dress was meant to be worn by you.” She looked her up and down. “This dress desires to be a Stella.”

And now Stella heard another voice. It was passionate, insistent. Fierce. For once in your life, her mother was hissing in her ear, make me proud. She stepped out of the dress, willing the voice to go away. Live up to your name. Be a Stella, Celia’s ghost continued to murmur as Stella left the dress crumpled on the floor and fled.


From The Paris Novel by Ruth Reichl Copyright © 2024 by Ruth Reichl. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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