My Life in France has been on my to-read list since I saw the Julia and Julia film, which I loved. Nora Ephron is the uncontested master (mistress?) of the romantic comedy. And what made this particular comedy so romantic was the relationship between Julia Child and her husband Paul. I love to read about good marriages, since, as one of my students pointed out this semester, great literature is littered with examples of broken ones.
When I told a friend that I was reading the biography, she told me that she’d heard it was very boring. Not the best introduction to the book. But, I’ve not been deterred by some of the longest, most reputed boring books in the English canon, so this wasn’t about to stop me. And I found that even though there were some slow parts, it was a highly enjoyable read.
I love France, and some element of French blood runs through my veins, since my maternal grandmother is part French (our family came to America in the Revolutionary War with LaFayette). I’ve also studied the language for a long time, both in college and in my own life. I’ve had patient native French speaking friends allow me to speak with them to work on the language. And I was blessed to serve as an interpreter for French speaking people at our former church.
And I think, to love this book, you have to want to learn more about France because after all, the book is simply about a love affair with France. French words are sprinkled in all over the place, and many are fairly obscure references that might send a non French speaker running to the French-English dictionary.
Child begins her story with her arrival in France for the first time, for her husband’s post-war government position in Paris. She details her first French meal, down to each taste and dish, as she does for many other meals in the book (Over 50 years later, she can still recall every element and sensation of that meal). It’s a mouth watering book, one that makes you long for the days when people took pride in quality ingredients and a slow and loving preparation of them.
In a way, Child chronicles the France of yesteryear, before modernization changed French cuisine. Child transports you to another time, where the supermarche n’existe pas, and small shops specialize in artisanal creations: cheese, meats, sausage, cooking utensils, dairy products, and bakery goods…especially baguettes.
I didn’t get a sense of Child’s boredom, as I did in Ephron’s movie, which drove her to cooking lessons. Instead, it’s Child’s intense drive and enthusiasm to immerse herself in a culture that brings out the cooking in her. And it’s her love of the cuisine, the desire to help a friend, and to be part of something greater that makes her work herself sick making her famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, parts I &II.
In Ephron’s version, we don’t see the endless hours, days, years, battles, and frustrations it takes to produce this book. We learn about the interpersonal conflicts in creating it, which Ephron plays up on a lot, while in the book, Child dismisses them and moves on. But Ephron can’t quite capture the sheer force of will that is Julia Child, bent on making her book a work of art of its own. Her commitment to quality, to integrity, is something I greatly respect, even if she might have taken it a little too far, for the sake of her own health and her sanity at times. She demonstrates the force of will, stamina, and ingenuity that likely made her a good spy in WWII, something that makes me find her even more fascinating. Sadly, there’s little reference in the book to her wartime service.
But what we also see in the middle of it all is an amazingly supportive husband who, on top of his extensive duties for the government, takes time to photograph her making recipes, takes her to new learning locations, and hosts groups of people to enjoy her cooking.
And she shares with him in his own trials, devoting large portions of the book to the emotional fallout from Paul’s work at the government, how they held together and made it through it. And while I thought that Ephron’s focus on their healthy sex life was a nice change from an industry that says that only unmarried folks have great sex, I think that the portions of her book that show the couple bonding together during adversity are a greater demonstration of the power of their love and commitment.
Believe it or not, I’ve never seen an episode of The French Chef. But I think I’ll remedy that soon.