American poet and short story writer Elizabeth Bishop devotedly chronicled her life in her journals with the curious exception of a three-week period in June of 1937. That three-week gap, during which a young Bishop traveled through pre-World War II France with friends, provides the catalyst for Liza Wieland’s absorbing new work, Paris, 7 A.M.
The novel, which opens in 1930 while Bishop is a student at Vassar College, meticulously combines the ample facts of Bishop’s life with reimagined events of 1937. In this coming-of-age story, Wieland provides glimpses into Bishop’s painful childhood while detailing her burgeoning sexuality and rebellion, nascent alcoholism, close circle of female friends and battles with writer’s block. As she struggles to finds her place in French literary circles, and as fear of fascism spreads through Europe, Bishop is drawn into an underground movement secretly rescuing Jewish infants in Normandy and transporting them to a convent in Paris.
This creative retelling of Bishop’s life provides an intriguing look at a complicated woman and writer. Moreover, Wieland’s choice to write in the eternal present with a limited third-person point of view to reveal Bishop’s thoughts and keen perceptions of those around her lends a particular freshness to the novel. Such skillful writing is not surprising, however, as Wieland has received several fellowships, including one from the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts, and was the 2017 winner of the Robert Penn Warren Award for fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Although those already familiar with Elizabeth Bishop may appreciate seeing this famous American writer in her youth through Wieland’s eyes, enjoyment of this novel does not require prior knowledge of Bishop. However, readers should not be surprised if, on finishing Paris, 7 A.M., they discover a new curiosity to learn even more about Bishop’s compelling life and work.