Book Review: Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, Elizabeth Bard

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with RecipesLunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It would be easy to begrudge Elizabeth Bard her lovely life. As New Yorker living in London in the early 2000’s, she met a nice French man at a conference in Paris. They had lunch and fell in love. Ten years on, she is married to that French man and they split their time between a Parisian pied-a-terre and a home in the south of France. In between, Bard became fluent in the French language and French cookery, penned a best-selling memoir/cookbook, her husband launched a successful digital film company, and they have a beautiful young son. Her blog is rainbow of food porn, lit by Provençal sunshine and Parisian lights. Scroll past vivid photos of heirloom tomatoes, fresh figs, haricots verts, cheeses weeping from their casements and naked beasts ready for roasting and you will be seduced by a life that seems the stuff of dreams. Envy as green as those fresh beans would be perfectly understandable.

But instead you just want to curl up on a sofa with Elizabeth to share a pot of tea, nibble her chocolate chip cookies, and giggle like schoolgirls over the photos of Daniel Craig in Le Figaro: Madame. She writes with unselfconscious charm and honesty that makes Lunch in Paris pure pleasure. It is like reading a series of letters from a dear friend.

This is not always a light-hearted memoir, though Bard’s breezy style often belies the very serious nature of her acculturation to France, the challenge of a cross-cultural marriage, and the loneliness of living in a city without friends or gainful employment. I have a sense that she made a deliberate decision to put the most positive “atta girl” spin on her period of solitude as she learned her way around the French language and culture and said goodbye to the career of her dreams for the man of her heart. She allows sparks of frustration and anger to glow brightly when she writes of the diagnoses and treatment of her father-in-law’s cancer and of her determination to see her husband succeed in his business venture.

There are a few jangly notes, mostly around the issue of money. Although Bard takes pains to show that the advantages she enjoyed in childhood were the result of a resourceful mother, she has the means to attend graduate school in London, then to travel every weekend from London to Paris in the year before she moves to Paris for good. Her mother and stepfather visit frequently from New York and she to see them. At one point, she withdraws around $20k from an ATM (Her stash? Her parents?) to make a down payment on an apartment in the 10eme arrondissement. It’s a bit of perspective that sets her apart from your average late 20s/early 30s-something single gal.

Bard centers her memoir around the theme of food and cooking as a means of discovering and falling in love with a place –  hardly new ground, particularly when the country in question is France. But Bard’s bright writing keeps this well free of cliché territory. Bard does a lovely job of addressing her attitudes toward eating and body image, in a land where women maintain slim physiques on petite frames well into middle age. She uses gentle but candid humor and relates some painful stories of fitting her curves into French expectations. I have since read an essay Bard wrote for Harper’s magazine about her struggles with her weight and emotional eating, a struggle that seemed to dissipate in a culture that regards food and mealtimes with reverence.

The recipes at the end of each chapter will make this book a permanent part of my cookbook library. She offers up an array of French home cooking, culled from her imagination, from meals at favorite restaurants and from French friends and in-laws who readily shared their culinary traditions.

I am now addicted to Elizabeth Bard’s blog. Seeing her happy life unfold in living color makes my own dreams seem full of possibility.

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Book Review: Enough About Love, Hervé Le Tellier

Enough About LoveEnough About Love by Hervé Le Tellier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To appreciate this novel is to recognize that it is written with Gallic sense and sensibility. That is to say, it is not a linear story with a predictable arc that reaches a climax and culminates in a resolution. In substance and style it is a novel of process, of conversation, of debate. It is, like the culture which it represents, maddening, thoughtful, intriguing, and seductive.

To enjoy this novel is to not expect a romance or a comedy- for it is not- but to delight in the romantic or comedic moments when they occur.

To read this novel is to be reminded that none of us truly knows another’s marriage, even that of a close friend, a sibling, or a colleague with whom you spend more time than your own spouse.

Enough About Love is a perfect title. It sound like a command, as in “Enough, already!” or “Let’s not talk about it anymore!” It could be the plea of psychoanalyst Thomas Le Gall, who pays off a small villa in Italy by listening to the angst-ridden memories and confessions of his patients. It could be the irritated and guilty brush off by stunning Anna Stein, a just-forty psychiatrist and mother of two, of her husband, the devoted Stanislaus. It could be the impatient demand of lithe Louise Blum, hot-shot attorney, as she instructs her husband, biologist Romain Vidal, on the fine art of speech delivery. It could be the jaded sigh of esoteric writer Yves Janvier, disagreeing with the suggestion that his next novel should have “love” in the title, to attract more readers.

These characters’ lives intersect; whether in a therapist’s office, in a café, on a sidewalk, or in a bed, the smallest ripples of chance force waves of change. By meeting, they are each compelled to examine their belief in love and where it diverges from passion or converges on friendship.

Le Tellier manages to make you care about characters whose lives are vastly removed from most. These are exceptionally attractive, successful, well-read, well-bred Parisians- conditions determined by birth into France’s upper-middle class, largely unavailable even to the hardest-working. The women live up to the impossible French notion of the ideal woman: she who brings home the bacon, fries it up in pan, and never lets Monsieur forget he’s a man. The men are allowed more diversity: a paunch in the belly, a thinning pate, weaker of character and of heart. For this I fault the male and the French in Le Tellier and the American in me. Perhaps his French readers expect no less; I weary of female characters whose physical perfection turns them into caricatures.

Le Tellier, through his intellectual-elite characters, also brings out the question of Jewish identity and French remorse and guilt about the treatment of Jews in France during the Second World War. At times it is poignant, at times shocking how contemporary France embraces and rejects its Jewish past and present.

Considering the style of Enough About Love: there is enough conventional novel structure to seduce you into a story of love and infidelity. But anticipate being walked through a maze of literary flourishes: a chapter that is one long inventory of Anna’s clothing purchases; a speech and an internal dialogue that run simultaneously for several pages, mirroring a game of Abkhazian Dominos –  a game that takes on a life of its own within the story; a love sonnet composed of forty distinct memories. An anonymous and omniscient narrator is so close to the characters’ innermost identities his or her revelations border on the more intimate second person narrative.

This is a quick read, but it is not light. There is a beautiful economy of words that is so quintessentially French – I commend the translator Adriana Hunter for the conveying the precision and clarity of the French language in the rich and muddled mess of English.

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Book Review: The Chateau, William Maxwell

The ChateauThe Chateau by William Maxwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a rare gem of a book. It is so perfect in its depiction of traveling and falling in love with another country that, not only would I not change a word, I found section after section I wanted to absorb into my skin. Although written sixty years ago and set just after World War II, the interactions and reactions of a young American couple with the French and in France remain relevant, painful, hilarious, and true.

Its peaceful pace belies the profound transformation of its principal characters, Harold and Barbara, and of the painful recent history from which the French were so eager to shake loose in the fragile years of the late 1940’s. It is counter to French nature to turn away from history and move on with assertive hope; Barbara and Harold arrive at the border just as France accepts that breaking the habit of reflection and debate and marching in concert with their European neighbors- including Germany- is the only way out of the post-war depression.

Whether or not it was the writer’s intention, Maxwell’s characters personify specific national characteristics or conditions that were present in France during this tender and uncertain time.

Mme Viénot is the face of dignity. She endeavors to preserve the gentility of the rapidly disappearing class of landed gentry. Hers is the eponymous château, which suffers the indignities of no hot water, no heat, and a larder limited by ration coupons. She is wily, a survivor, one foot trailing in the France’s past, the rest of her thrust forward, ready to grasp what she can to keep her home and legacy intact.

Eugène Boisgaillard encapsulates a nation emasculated by war, and its co-conspirators helplessness, guilt, and frustration. He runs hot and cold- a character you don’t trust and but somehow you come to understand. He is surely suffering some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition not spoken of in a nation that had lost so many of its young men to war. He resents the vitality and hope of the American naïfs as he comes to terms with the loss of his gracious pre-war lifestyle.

Mme Straus-Muguet is a reminder that all is not as good as it seems in the land of your dreams. Pulling back the curtain of Emerald City to see an insignificant blunderbuss at the controls is a keen disappointment. But once you accept the flaws and the ordinariness of it all, you also begin to feel more at home.

Her awkward social status is also a painful but unspoken reminder that, although united during the war by hunger, fear, resistance, or mere survival, the different social classes would sort themselves out in peacetime. Peace means never having to say “I’m sorry,” to someone beneath your standing.

Sabine and Alix are the face of the new France: young, strong, independent women. Sabine is blazing her career path without the help of her connected family or a paramour; Alix is a busy mother in a passionate but difficult marriage with the mercurial Eugène. These women realize there is no time to stop and reflect on all that was lost in two generations of war; their lives are rich and full, the demands on their intelligence and heart too great to tarry.

It often feels that Harold and Barbara are more conduits than characters, particularly the winsome and vague Barbara. Harold works so hard to understand and to be understood, to fit in, get along, adapt; he wants desperately to be French, but understands that he is the quintessential American. The passages showing Harold falling helplessly in love with France, encountering the inexplicable and the maddening, and finally, saying goodbye to Paris are heart-wrenching to any one who has known and loved that beautiful, proud, contrary, gracious country.

The Château is a love letter to France, and an homage to the baffling, intoxicating experience of traveling abroad. It is also an astute portrayal of post World War II Europe, of a country that was on the losing side of the victorious.

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The sweeping up the heart/And putting love away

Again this year, for the third bewildering time, I have said goodbye to a friend. I have mourned a life that graced the world with compassion and integrity. I have felt anger over a light extinguished far too soon. These friends – Tom, Peter, and Will – celebrated all the wondrous things the world offered, embraced circles of friends with boundless affection, explored this earth from the peaks of the Himalayas to the deserts of Namibia, choose careers that touched the lives of countless individuals, and displayed mercy by providing loving homes to abandoned dogs and cats. They each reserved a special place in their hearts for the least among us and showed the best of what we can all be.

Tom. Chance and coincidence put us back in touch after the many intervening years between 1988-when we were students at Central, and 2008- when Brendan and I made our home near your Fremont neighborhood.  I remember the day at PCC when you shared with me your broken heart at the loss of your beloved Lucy. A few months later we too lost our little Lucy-girl and you understood, without having to say more than “I’m so sorry,” how profound is the pain of losing a canine companion.

The world came to right when you found a home in the heart of a beautiful, strong, intelligent woman and her sweet blue heeler, Josie. It was a joy to watch that romance blossom and a comfort to know two worthy souls had found one another. The neighborhood was devastated by the sudden and senseless accident that stilled your vibrant life. I still catch sight of you in Fremont, strolling along Leary Way with your easy, open gait; I hear your voice in the store, that warm bass bidding hello to the many friends you encounter. Know that you are missed, that there is a beautiful girl who will carry you forever in her heart, and that we, your many friends, regret the beers at Brouwer’s and the runs at Alpental that we will never get to share with you.

Peter. Oh my heart. How lovingly Brendan spoke of you and Randy and how he marveled at the bond that formed the moment he met the two of you at the language center in Amboise in 1988. By the time I finally met you and Randy in Paris in 1996, you were a part of the story of my marriage because your friendship with my husband shaped so much of his character.  You both loved and celebrated him unconditionally. Your commitment to each other showed us what a loving relationship should be; how two very different souls with different ambitions and goals could unite and support one another; how conflict and challenge could make a relationship stronger if the heart is allowed to lead.

The two weeks we spent together hiking in the hills of western Ireland were magical. You and I, ever the Type A’s who tolerated no dawdling, would charge ahead on the path. Randy and Brendan, with their patient and reflective characters, would pause to enjoy the views and catch up when it was time for a pause chocolat. We chattered about books, about food, about politics and travel, our words tumbling together as we delighted in our kindred spirits. You talked about taking an early retirement after many successful years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Brendan and I hoped to lure you and Randy to the Land of the Long White Cloud and we talked about creating a peaceful life together in the New Zealand countryside. You and I planned out the menus of our bistro- an intimate venue that would feature regional and seasonal delights with a Provençal twist. Our men would do the heavy lifting behind the scenes, I would manage the front-of-house, you would be chef de cuisine. We believed in butter and flowers, in the right stemware and linen. We would have played with recipes, trolling markets, changing menus, flirting with the same delivery drivers and fishmongers. I idolized and adored you.

For two years you struggled as your health deteriorated. Not even the world’s most skilled physicians at the Oregon Health Sciences Institute and the Mayo Clinic could determine exactly what was tearing down your organs. Finally, after endless tests and changing regimens of drugs, countless hopes raised and dashed, they found the rare sarcoma against which you were powerless to fight. But to the very end you chose your own path. You let go when you were ready, not when the disease determined it was time. You were only 54. You and Randy should have grown old together, we should have grown old with you. There was so much more world to explore, so many plans to make.  The sun dimmed when you left this world.

Will. My sweet, irreverent Southern man who was at once bon vivant with a Ph.D and a just-folks boy from the hollers. You would be the last to admit your own extraordinary courage. As a young man growing up in South Carolina in the 50s and 60s it was unimaginable that you reveal your true self. How painful it must have been to live a secret, though there is no doubt you loved your wife and cherished your little girl. You served in Vietnam, an experience you rarely discussed. You would never allow anyone to label you as a hero. But you were. The courage in revealing your sexuality was rewarded when you met the love of your life, your darling Michael, who was your companion for over twenty years.

Will, you saw something in me when we met in Athens, Ohio in 1995 at the very start of my career in study abroad. You reached out to me in complete trust and never-ending affection; you became my professional champion, very quickly my friend, and for a great, crazy, whirlwind four years, my boss. I don’t know of any other man outside of my husband and my father who rewarded me with unconditional love the way you did. How many people ever end a business phone call with their boss by exchanging “I love you’s”? How many bosses would play hooky from work to take their charge to London’s Camden Town flea market or a gay pride parade in Paris? My God, I was so blessed. The little gifts you showered on me are among the few things I’ve carted with me around this world: the antique French shoe-shine box;  the Degas knockoff I couldn’t stop coming back to at Covent Garden that you bought for me on the sly; the lavender sachet with its embroidered “W”; the silver fish fork with the bone handle; the wooden coat hanger from a French farmhouse. We shared a love for South Asian writers, Roxy Music, Paris, and you always, always made me laugh. I am so glad I was able to say “I love you” one last time, when we both knew it would be the last time. You are my angel.

So much loss.  I have felt the sadness of my mortality; the terror at the thought of losing my life partner; the sorrow in not being able to relieve a loved one’s pain; the regret in acknowledging the body’s fragility; the paranoia of watching out for that split second when one decision instantly ends a life.

So much life. I cannot give physical life to these cherished men, but I can give life to their memories with my tears and my words. I can feel again and forever the love with which they graced this mortal world and try to measure up to their integrity, courage and generous hearts.

Emily Dickinson, “The bustle in the house”
THE BUSTLE in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth,—
 
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.