Book review: Beginning French, by les Américains
This book is adorable. I started reading having given myself permission to bail if it got obnoxious, self-important, or eye-rollingly insufferable (like rich people soul-searching and eating things abroad while gawking at local customs). I’ve started without finishing countless memoirs about the expat experience for these reasons, so I set my expectations low. Unnecessarily, as it turns out, because this was a lovely, charming story. Actually, a collection of them: it’s a book of connected anecdotes about the experience of an American couple managing life, culture shock and unexpected home renovations in an old farmhouse in a medieval village in the Aquitaine region.
It appealed to me as an expat and, although I don’t live there currently, I’ve lived in France too, including a stint in the countryside similar to theirs. So with a somewhat similar background as perspective, I was interested in others’ experience. They perfectly encapsulated what it’s like to be an outsider in the French countryside, without painting themselves as insensitive, blundering Americans (a reputation we really do have to fight in Europe). Instead, they tell stories as thoughtful commentary on their experiences and perceptions with context and a lot of self-awareness.
Their descriptions were beautifully vivid; nostalgic for those who’ve been there and enticing for those who haven’t: you could taste every bite from the farmer’s markets, smell every sprig of lavender, see every star in the same sky that inspired Van Gogh’s Starry Night. It’s a sweet, lighthearted glimpse of the lifestyle, in a kind of warts-and-all way: a friend of theirs relates a story of meeting a neighbor who’s in the middle of wringing a chicken’s neck, and without missing a beat enthusiastically greets her new neighbors. It’s not all pastoral romance and scenery that looks like a background frame in Beauty and the Beast.
I liked their sense of humor, and that they mentioned what they’d done to get where they are, so they didn’t come across as entitled and sick of the rat race that had made them more money than they knew what to do with, hence running away and using it to build a new life of dreamy vacationing. They’re down to earth and relatable. Anyone who reads this will want to attend one of their boozy summer dinner parties. The writing is great too, even with a bit of corniness near the end. I know it’s a memoir, so it’s probably in some way truthful, but some of the tension felt manufactured for the sake of a story arc and detracted from the overall tone.
And (I admit it’s maybe an unfair criticism on my part, as I’m totally jealous of their ability to live in both worlds) – their French house is for vacations. They stay a few months in summer and return to the U.S. Ultimately this isn’t an expat, uprooted life – trading in the security of one world for the unfamiliarity and possibility of another one. They get to keep a foot in each place.
And their problems in the old farmhouse were mostly covered by the insurance company, despite the immense hassle, so even those issues weren’t quite so massive or impossible to overcome. The all’s well that ends well tone was strangely comforting though.
For comparison, read some of the frequent reporting the Daily Mail’s done on expats (mostly British – there’s such a cute joke in the book about this!) who sell everything and haul over the Channel to France only to be completely disillusioned by the farming work, screwed over by contractors, and drained of savings. Maybe we should all take a page from this book instead and when possible, have a little of the best of both worlds.
I received an advance ebook copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Beginning French : Lessons from a Stone Farmhouse
by Les Americains
published June 1, 2016