Battle of the Books

battleofbooks

Écoutez bien: In one corner is Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard. This is a memoir-cookbook out April 7th of this year. It’s the sophomore book from Ms. Bard, a sequel to Lunch in Paris, which was stuffed with delicious and stories of l’amour far from home. Rumbling in the other corner, we have a hefty hardback, Courtney Maum’s I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, another expat tale of – wait, what? the lineup

You don’t want to fight? But, all these people are here. We promised them blood – we told them to gird themselves.

All right, well if you’d rather have a civil discourse, I’ll get the snacks. Excusez-moi, les hors d’ouvres. And promise at least one racy passage.

Confess: we Americans love it when the French eschew violence.  And they in turn love it when we succumb to it. I can vouch for this stereotype. Having worked in a French lycée, I heard first-hand the murmurs that, YES, once there was a fight. Two years before I worked there! They wanted to know about fights at American schools. I chose to let them think I was from California – a far more civilized place than the Ozarks – and not entertain them with tales of the two physical fights I endured in school or the one I successfully talked my way out of (which was stupid, really, because that was the only one I really had a chance of winning).

No wonder so many children wanted to challenge me. I was such an obviously fearsome 14 y.o.

No wonder so many children wanted to challenge me. I was such an obviously fearsome 14 y.o.

Two books I came across this month did, oui, pump fresh blood into the well-trafficked stereotypes – lots of politics, lingerie, cheese, and a disdain for American brutality – but also branched in a direction very popular in recent American culture: the confessional.

Whether it’s Lena Dunham in “Girls” or Anne Sexton’s poetry, form and plot shortcomings are overlooked because whatever is happening, you cannot look away from the party or the wreckage. Diaries, family photos, elevator surveillance: we love it. Memoirs are at their best when confessing, when there’s no room for doubt in the reader’s mind of the odd-ball situational truth. The more visceral the better.

I’m Having So Much Fun Here Without You is a work of fiction. But its first person narrator – struggling artist Richard Haddon – plants us immediately in confessional territory. By paragraph three we know he really wants to celebrate his gallery opening with the mistress who left him, not the wife who’s driving him homeward. And the vérité in this book is palpable : it’s populated by classic French in-laws and real landmarks. You can even order the tartare de tomate au thon at Hippopotamus, a restaurant Richard takes Anne-Laure to in an effort to rekindle the excitement of their earlier romance.

Picnic in Provence sits firmly in that newly-popular field of memoir-cookbooks: heavy on the writing, recipes at chapter ends reflecting the mood or what was actually cooked in the preceding pages. And aside from my dislike of reading on the Kindle – give me paper! – the prose was  well-paced, and I never felt like I was reading a cookbook. The thrust of the narrative is Bard’s transplant from Paris to Céreste – a village in Provence. You might think that uprooting from one place in France to another wouldn’t be seismic – but for a NYC girl, the shift from city life to rural is a hurdle not yet crossed. Alongside the geographic change is one in Bard herself: she becomes a mother.

To me, these were the most touching segments. Her thoughts on the baby-friendly atmosphere (massively-subsidized daycare for starters) were resonant, but even more appealing was her vulnerability as she falters to find her footing. This is, after all, a confessional.

A baby is a wishing well. We walk by every day and throw our pennies in. Most are bright and shiny, full of smiles and possibility. Some are tarnished with bad memories, unlucky genes. Others have been hiding under the couch cushions all these years, just waiting for someone to dig them out.

Bard ventures further into the dark realm of motherhood fears, revisiting her own childhood that was scarred by her father’s bipolar disorder and her parents’ eventual divorce. As she struggles to adapt to motherhood, facing the difficulty of bonding with her son long after he’s graduated from infancy, she doesn’t flinch from her own shortcomings. These deficiencies are something her French mother-in-law won’t talk about with her. Luckily for Bard, her husband Gwendol shores the family up both financially and emotionally. Their relationship is a stable, lovely thing to read about – satisfying and comforting as a bowl of beef bourguignon.

Stephanie and Artie atop the Arc de Triumphe in Paris.

(Atop the Arc de Triumphe) Not the rough-and-tumble life in France: My son and I did our best to represent America while living abroad. We held ourselves to minor outbursts of physical aggression.

In Maum’s book, however, matrimony isn’t truly unhappy– it’s boring. It took me a long time to warm up to the protagonist in all his explicit screw-ups. Richard – a British expat – is heartbroken over his mistress’ rejection. I would’ve immediately had more sympathy for the sap, except that in the same breath, we get to hear how awesome Anne-Laure, his stunning, smart, can-only-hand-wash-her-lingerie wife is. Did I mention he also loves his five year-old daughter? She dances around the periphery of the story, a cute bit of decoration. The lion’s share of the tension in Maum’s book is whether or not Richard can patch things up with Anne-Laure.

Here’s a classic Richard musing, when he’s pondering if life between him and Anne-Laure might ever be the same (should his gambit to win her back succeed): “But can we come back to love after an absence, or does it die from neglect?”

Don’t worry, the book doesn’t spend all its time wallowing in existential questions of love. There’s a healthy portion of lust. Midway through the book, we’re presented with Richard’s first encounters with Lisa (the mistress), when he’s still debating on whether-or-not to take the plunge:

Lisa reappeared with a tray bearing two cups of espresso, a saucer of milk, and a cup of brown sugar. When she placed the tray down on the coffee table, a little bit sloshed out of the saucer.

Just when I’m thinking – oh, what a charming ejaculation metaphor! – two paragraphs later, we’re in full who-put-what-where descriptions. The affair is shiny and new, but pleasures of the body leave Richard damaged and drained and in need of familial healing – which is what he spends the entire book trying to retrieve.

The biggest difference in peeking into these two French expat family dramas is one of community. There’s a bit of city vs. country, but it’s deeper than that. The focus on Richard’s selfish myopia may be entertaining, but the all-inclusive humor that’s a living, breathing thing in Bard’s memoir opens arms to old and young, American and French. If I had to declare a winner, I’d award the (entirely-subjective) belt to Picnic in Provence. Seriously looking forward to trying out loup de mer au citron aux herbes – seabass with lemon and herbes – recipe.

Springtime in Paris: Croissants at Maison Kayser.

Springtime in Paris: Croissants at Maison Kayser.

Obviously I have a Neufchatêl-shaped weakness in my core for all things French. And whether you’re Bringing Up Bébé, wondering why French Women Don’t Get Fat, or eating your heart out with Mimi Thorisson’s blog “Manger,” the French mystique has been pretty accessible to American audiences. Reader, do you have a weakness for a certain nationality?

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One thought on “Battle of the Books

  1. Great review, and no debate here. I vote for Picnic in Provence! Having recently spent two weeks in France—one in Paris, one in Provence— experiencing the two cultures, I will definitely have to read this—while munching on a baguette with slices from a powdered sausage, olives, and camembert cheese!

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