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Flâneuses, footloose and fancy free

Flâneuse-ing is the feminine art of traveling to see, not to be seen; to tell, and not be hold, as we learn from Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, Tokyo, Venice and London. Each chapter centers on a different woman’s voice. Paris is where Elkin grew into herself and she loves it. Tokyo is where she went when her boyfriend changed jobs and hates it. Until she detaches from him, then she can see the country’s beauty for what it is.

She shows us Venice through the life of Sophie Calle an artist who obsessively follows her subjects around the city; she creates by stalking. London we see through the eyes of Virginia Woolf, reminding us that it can feel like freedom to walk through the city dressed as a man, not a woman.

In a surprise turn, she tells the story of an “American Girl in Italy,” the girl is modeling for a woman photographer. Both are American, each traveling on her own in Europe, each having a great time. It’s not a picture about sexual harassment. The truth is in what they have to say to us, not how they look.

Elkin is explicit about streets and buildings, jobs and protests, lovers and friends. Only after finishing the book did I realize I had no idea how anyone looked, shockingly refreshing when nearly every report of the First Lady describes what she is wearing.

Elkin’s book restores my faith in literary criticism, although if I call it that, I fear it may put people off. Her book reveals great knowledge and deep research woven in the lithe prose of memoir.

Read the whole book: Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin. Chatto and Windus: London, 2016.

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