Curtis was the editor of Texas Monthly, and later an author and a professor, but clearly his marriage and love for Tracy lay near the heart of his being. She seems a wonderful woman and mother, with a generous talent for life and beauty, who came late to a career as an interior decorator. In the book’s opening chapter, Curtis sketches their life in Austin, and the several trips to Paris that meant so much to them, before writing about Tracy’s excruciating death from cancer in 2011. There’s an obscene absurdity in epistemologically passing, one instant to the next, from husband to widower, a man feeling in all his being still married, but now wedded to death. Widowed at 66, Curtis sits in his apartment every night learning magic tricks by watching DVDs. As a replacement for a happy conjugal life, it seems that will have to do.
The next chapter jumps to 2019 and Paris, which as a widower he’s been regularly returning to. Curtis doesn’t offer much sustained focus on Tracy, as if inhibited by a sense of privacy, but he’s committed to the idea that Paris represented their happiest selves: not a rejection of their “town-and-gown” lives in Austin, but one of alternative identities, even somewhat risqué, in a setting of aesthetic beauty and adventure, imbued with that city’s time-honored romance. Tracy yearns to be “filled by Paris.” This Paris is inevitably touristy and familiar, but Curtis’s descriptions are informative and closely observed, with cascades of precise detail.
It’s also an exclusively white Paris. Curtis describes the banlieues, where many immigrants live north of Paris, as “wretched,” and it’s left at that. I found it at times off-putting to be reading a book that portrays contemporary Paris, so dynamically and complexly multiracial and multiethnic, in that whitewashed way.
“Real grief,” however, that “horrible, ghastly panic,” returns at the start of the book’s second half. Curtis’s struggle to overcome provides a new, urgent momentum. Studies have found that widows and widowers from happy relationships face more severe mental and health problems than those from unhappy ones, and that for older, widowed men, one risk of persistent grief is increased mortality.