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“A marvel of lost innocence” (O, The Oprah Magazine) that reimagines three life-changing weeks poet Elizabeth Bishop spent in Paris amidst the imminent threat of World War II.

June 1937. Elizabeth Bishop, still only a young woman and not yet one of the most influential poets of the 20th century, arrives in France with her college roommates. They are in search of an escape, and inspiration, far from the protective world of Vassar College where they were expected to find an impressive husband and a quiet life. But the world is changing, and as they explore the City of Lights, the larger threats of fascism and occupation are looming. There, they meet a community of upper-crust expatriates who not only bring them along on a life-changing adventure, but also into an underground world of rebellion that will quietly alter the course of Elizabeth’s life forever.

Sweeping and stirring, Paris, 7 A.M. imagines 1937—the only year Elizabeth, a meticulous keeper of journals—didn’t fully chronicle—in vivid detail and brings us from Paris to Normandy where Elizabeth becomes involved with a group rescuing Jewish “orphans” and delivering them to convents where they will be baptized as Catholics and saved from the impending horror their parents will face.

Both poignant and captivating, Paris, 7 A.M. is an “achingly introspective marvel of lost innocence” (O, The Oprah Magazine) and a beautifully rendered take on the formative years of one of America’s most celebrated female poets.

Paris, 7 A.M.
If you can remember a dream and write it down quickly, without translating, you’ve got the poem. You’ve got the landscapes and populations: alder and aspen and poplar and birch. A lake, a wood, the sea. Pheasants and reindeer. A moose. A lark, a gull, rainbow trout, mackerel. A horned owl. The silly somnambulist brook babbling all night. An old woman and a child. An old man covered with glittering fish scales.

An all-night bus ride over precipitous hills, a heeling sailboat, its mast a slash against the sky, trains tunneling blindly through sycamore and willow, a fire raging in the village, terrible thirst.

See? The dreams are poems. And the way to bring on the dreaming is to eat cheese before bed. The worst cheese you can get your hands on, limburger or blue. Cheese with a long, irregular history.

This was a crazy notion to bring to college, but you have to bring something, don’t you? You have to bring a certain kind of habit, or a story, or, because this is Vassar in 1930, a family name. Some girls bring the story of a mysterious past, a deep wound, a lost love, a dead brother. Other girls bring Rockefeller, Kennedy, Roosevelt. They bring smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey and promiscuity (there’s a kind of habit), which some girls wear like—write it!—a habit. This is a wonderful notion, the nun and the prostitute together at last, as they probably secretly wish they could have been all along. Elizabeth laughs about it privately, nervously, alone in her head.

Her roommate, Margaret Miller, has brought a gorgeous alto and a talent for painting. She’s brought New York, which she calls The City, as if there were only that one, ever and always. And cigarettes, a bottle of gin stashed at the back of her wardrobe, a silver flask engraved with her mother’s initials. Margaret has brought a new idea of horizon, not a vista but an angle, not a river but a tunnel, a park and not a field. She will paint angles and tunnels and parks until (write it!) disaster makes this impossible, and then she will curate exhibitions of paintings and write piercing, gemlike essays about the beauty of madwomen in nineteenth-century art.

The cheese, meanwhile, occupies a low bookshelf. Most nights, Elizabeth carves a small slice and eats it with bread brought from the dining hall.

And sure enough, the dreams arrive—though that seems the wrong word for dreams, but really it isn’t. They arrive like passengers out of the air or off the sea, having crossed a vast expanse of some other element. Elizabeth’s father, eighteen years dead. In her dreams, he’s driving a large green car. Her mother, at a high window of the state hospital in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, signaling for something Elizabeth can’t understand, her expression fierce and threatening. A teacher she loves disappearing into a maze of school corridors.

A Dutch bricklayer setting fire to the Reichstag. A two-year-old boy dressed in a brown shirt, a swastika wound round his arm like a bandage. His sister’s mouth opened wide to scream something no one will ever hear because she is gassed and then burnt to ashes. All these people trailing poems behind them like too-large overcoats. And Elizabeth is the seamstress: make the coat fit better, close the seams, move the snaps, stitch up the ragged hem.

Elizabeth, Margaret says toward the end of October. I’m not sure these are poems. They’re more like strange little stories. But I am sure that cheese stinks.

I know, Elizabeth says, but it has a noble purpose.

Which is what, for heaven’s sake? If you want to have peculiar dreams, try this. Margaret holds out the silver flask.

Just . . . without a glass?

Just.

Elizabeth takes a long swallow, coughs.

Oh, she says when she can speak. It’s like drinking perfume.

How would you know that? Margaret says.

I quaff the stuff for breakfast, of course!

Margaret lies down on her bed, and Elizabeth sits below her, on the floor, her back against the bed frame.

So, Margaret begins. About men.

Were we talking about men?

If we weren’t, we should be.

I wish I knew some men the way you do, Elizabeth says.

And what way is that?

To feel comfortable around them. Natural.

Maybe I can help. Give you a lesson or two.

Start now.

Margaret sits up, shifts the pillow behind her back. Elizabeth turns to watch, thinking this will be part of the lesson, how to move one’s body, the choreography. Margaret looks like a queen riding on a barge. What poem is that? A pearl garland winds her head: / She leaneth on a velvet bed. Margaret as the Lady of Shalott. When Elizabeth turns back, she sees herself and Margaret in the mirror across the room, leg and leg and arm and arm and so on, halves of heads. Halves of thoughts, too. It seems to do strange things, this drink. It’s exhilarating.

First, Margaret says, boys—men—they want two things that are contradictory. They want bad and good. They want prostitute and wife.

Prostitute and nun, Elizabeth says.

Margaret smiles, which makes her entire face seem to glow. Such dark beauty, Elizabeth thinks, like my mother. In some photographs, she looks like someone’s powdered her face with ashes.

That’s the spirit! Margaret says. And not only do you have to know how to be both, you have to know when.

Must take some mind reading.

Which is really just imagination. Which you have loads of, obviously.

Margaret leans forward to rest the flask on Elizabeth’s shoulder. This helps, she says.

Helps us or them?

Both, Margaret says. She watches Elizabeth unscrew the cap on the flask. Not so much this time.

Elizabeth takes a tiny sip, a drop. Suddenly, she feels terribly thirsty. A memory crackles out of nowhere, a fire.

Much better, she says. Almost tastes good.

So it’s a math problem, Margaret says. Which do they want, and when. Probability. Gambling.

What if you guess wrong?

Then you move on.

Moving on. That must be the real secret to it.

Down the hall, a door opens and music pours out. How have they not heard it before now, the phonograph in Hallie’s room? She is trying to learn the Mozart sonata that way, by listening. Miss Pierce tells them it will help, to listen, but it’s still no substitute for fingers on the keys, hours alone in the practice room, making the notes crash and break on your own.

Margaret is talking about a boy named Jerome, someone she knows from Greenwich, her childhood. Elizabeth gazes up at her, drinks in the calm assurance of Margaret’s voice, the confiding tone, the privacy. College can be so awfully public, even places that are supposed to be private: library carrels, bathroom stalls.

Jerome was in her cousin’s class. Now at college in The City. Columbia. He is bound to have friends. Elizabeth listens to the sounds of the words, the hard-soft-hard c’s like a mediocre report card: college, city, Columbia, country. The music of it soothes.

She turns to look out the window, rubs her cheek against the nubby pattern of the quilt on Margaret’s bed, takes some vague and unexpected comfort in the fabric. A light from the dorm room above theirs illuminates the branches of an oak tree outside, two raised arms, a child asking her mother to be picked up, pressed to a shoulder. She hears a child’s voice say the words. Hold me. I’m thirsty. Margaret is talking about men. The tree is asking to be gathered up, held aloft. An impossible request: the roots run too deep, too wide, scrabbling under this dormitory, beyond, halfway across campus.

Elizabeth reaches for the flask, takes a longer swallow, then another.
This reading group guide for Paris, 7 A.M. includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book

Introduction

June 1937. Elizabeth Bishop, still only a young woman and not yet one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century, arrives in France with her college roommates. They are in search of an escape, and inspiration, far from the protective world of Vassar College where they were expected to find impressive husbands, quiet lives, and act accordingly. But the world is changing, and as they explore the City of Light, the larger threats of fascism and occupation are looming. There, they meet a community of upper-crust expatriates who not only bring them along on a life-changing adventure, but also into an underground world of rebellion that will quietly alter the course of Elizabeth’s life forever.

Paris, 7 A.M. imagines 1937—the only year Elizabeth, a meticulous keeper of journals, didn’t fully chronicle—in vivid detail and brings us from Paris to Normandy where Elizabeth becomes involved with a group rescuing Jewish “orphans” and delivering them to convents where they will be baptized as Catholics and saved from the impending horror their parents will face.

Poignant and captivating, Liza Wieland’s Paris, 7 A.M. is a beautifully rendered take on the formative years of one of America’s most celebrated—and mythologized—female poets.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Elizabeth has little experience as a writer when she meets Miss Marianne Moore. What is the significance of their meeting so early in her journey as a writer? Does it inspire Elizabeth or intimidate her?

2. Elizabeth describes a regular visit with her friend Robert. Discuss their relationship and why Elizabeth behaves as she does. What about their interaction makes her anxious?

3. Elizabeth has long been estranged from her mother. Nevertheless, she is deeply affected by her death. Why? What about their relationship makes her death so difficult? Does it influence Elizabeth’s decision to travel abroad?

4. On her way to Paris, Elizabeth stops along the coast. While there she steals a red blouse from a woman in the circus and tries it on. Why does she do something so bold and reckless? What urges her to try on the blouse?

5. While in Europe, Elizabeth learns about Robert’s death and has trouble dealing with it. Why does his death stick with her? Is her guilt warranted? Do you think she should move on?

6. Elizabeth and Louise travel the world at Louise’s expense. Describe their relationship. How does Louise treat Elizabeth? Who is dependent on whom?

7. When the girls move to Paris they meet Clara and learn her story. What is your initial reaction to Clara? What do you think of her budding relationship with Elizabeth?

8. What do you think of the interaction between Elizabeth, Robert’s mom, and Clara? Do you think she had the right to call out Clara’s obsessive behavior?

9. Why do Elizabeth and the girls visit the brothel? What does this moment reveal about the women in 1937 Paris?

10. Margaret suffers a serious injury while traveling. How does she face her new disability? How does the accident change Elizabeth and the others?

11. People are becoming more and more panicked by the impending war, and the girls have many encounters with German soldiers. Elizabeth even has an interesting interaction with one. How do they feel about the world they’ve found themselves in?

12. Elizabeth travels north with Clara to escape Paris but ends up involved in something much bigger than herself. Do you think she would have helped Clara smuggle babies if she hadn’t been tricked into it? Why or why not?

13. Elizabeth is deeply affected by her trip with the babies. What about this experience stays with her? How does it change her?

14. Sigrid is very important to Elizabeth, but she cuts ties when she returns to America. Why does she end their relationship? What other parts of her life in Paris does she decide leave behind?

15. After decades, Clara and Elizabeth run into each other in America. We have no information about the intervening years. Discuss why their encounter is so tense. After everything they faced together, why is Clara so distant?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Imagine you have moved to Europe at the start of World War II. You interact with German soldiers and sense unease and fear everywhere. Would you stay? Discuss how you would act with the German soldiers.

2. You are in Europe at the brink of WWII. An underground group approaches you for help protecting Jews or Americans trying to escape Europe. Would you help? Why or why not?

3. Elizabeth had many intimate relationships in America and Paris. What was challenging about each of these? What was her healthiest relationship? What was her most detrimental? Explain.

4. This story imagines the years that Elizabeth did not chronicle religiously. Given what you know about her poetry, do you think this is an accurate assumption about her adventures during the unknown years?
Donna Kain

Liza Wieland is an American novelist, short story writer, and poet who has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, and the North Carolina Arts Council. She is the 2017 winner of the Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her novel A Watch of Nightingales won the 2008 Michigan Literary Fiction Award, and her most recent novel, Land of Enchantment, was a longlist finalist for the 2016 Chautauqua Prize. She lives near Oriental, North Carolina, and teaches at East Carolina University.