Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Book Review: France, A Love Story: Women Write About the French Experience (2004)

Some writers love anthologies. Others absolutely despise them. Readers also fall on either camp, although the stakes are much lower in their community.

Writers who love them compete desperately for their works to be included, particularly in the more prestigious collections, i.e., the Chicken Soup for the Soul-type franchises. If they're fortunate and/or talented enough (not all the talented are duly recognized as such; see Vincent van Gogh) for their names to grace the pages of these bestselling publications, they can spin that wee bit of fame into other, better-paying opportunities in magazines, journals, and on rare occasions, books. It also makes for some nice bragging rights. Who doesn't know at least one modest aunt or cousin who hasn't been chosen by the folks over at the Chicken Soup book factory?

Other writers, though, can't stand the mere thought of them, and they're not afraid to voice their opinions on the subject all over the blogosphere. They make a good point: anthologies seldom pay more than a tiny sum (it would be insulting to call them honoraria) to their contributors, and more often than not you get no more than a single copy of the book itself, if at all (in comparison with the untold millions that Jack Canfield and his ilk have made off the Chicken Soup series, contributors still get a mere $200 for their piece, ten free copies of the book, and nothing else); for all the work they do to polish their work so that it's acceptable to the editors, contributors are also expected encouraged to drum up publicity for the final product for no additional cut of the royalties; and really, does the world need any more anthologies? They remind more than a few of the dry doorstoppers that generations of high school English Lit teachers would inflict on their dazed students. Norton Anthology of English Literature, anyone?

Which brings us to France, A Love Story: Women Write About the French Experience.

Did I like the book? Yes. Did the book make me long for my own French Experience? Absolutely, yes. Did the book evoke the France of our collective longings, yours and mine, the France of azure skies, ivory lilies floating on a pond, bowls of steaming cafe au lait, carved wooden tables wrapped in white linen and groaning with the weight of platter upon platter of the richest food? Hell yes. Would I consider the book an unequivocal literary success? Erm, not quite. Close, but non.

Camille Cusumano was tasked with the enviable position of sifting through what surely was a hefty stack of contributions to find the gems that would eventually become this book. A highly experienced writer and editor, she apparently is Seal Press' go-to point person for the [Insert Country Here]: A Love Story series -- she also edited Greece, A Love Story, Italy, A Love Story, and Mexico, A Love Story. Her latest book is (natch) Tango: An Argentine Love Story, although unlike her previous Seal Press assignments, this one is all about her own personal experiences rather than a selection of many others'.

During a discussion about Cusumano's France volume at a local Francophile book club meeting last week, someone expressed chagrin at what she perceived to be the editor's lack of career focus on one specific country. The implication was that the speaker couldn't really trust Cusumano's taste or opinion, given that it seemed to be all over the map, so to speak.

Being a freelance writer myself, I completely understand and sympathize with Ms. Cusumano's seemingly erratic writing trajectories. You take whatever you can get, is the freelance writer's mantra. I've written about everything from weddings in national parks to solo backpacking travel, from quirky American festivals to bass guitar mechanics, and from Black Friday retail plans to the reasons why Filipino food has yet to catch on with American palates. It's a living.

Still, I see the fellow reader's point, and as I read through this uneven, though still worthy anthology, I also see why anthologies are maligned as often as they are revered.

Contributors to France, A Love Story range from well-known (Alice B. Toklas, Ruth Reichl, M.F.K. Fisher) to the relatively more obscure-yet-no-less-gifted (Mary Schattenberg, Lori Oliva). Each has been asked to share their treasured piece of France, whether real or imagined, present or past, happy or painful. (Some of the contributions, including Toklas' and Reichl's, are obviously excerpts from previously published works.) Some essays recall old lovers, others wax poetic about the irresistible allure of certain foods or wines, while still others provide tongue-in-cheek, humorous and terribly irreverent takes on hallowed Paris institutions. (Ayun Halliday's hilarious and brilliant essay, "Paris Lip," is the one essay I was already familiar with, having read it previously in her own travel memoir, No Touch Monkey!: And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late. It's the anti-Devil Wears Prada, a story both funny and horrifying in its depiction of the beauty industry's attempts to literally destroy women's looks in the name of "enhancement.")

The writers, by and large, don't disappoint, although a handful left me scratching my head and longing for a point. ("What's your thesis??" My high school English teacher's voice rings in my mind to this day.) Halliday is one of my favorite writers, and she didn't fail to deliver in her contribution. Likewise, Oliva's "Paris Can Wait," about her unexpected reaction to a visit in the forest of Compiegne, where World War I ended and Hitler exacted his revenge for the French treatment of the German enemy, moved me to near tears. Monica Y. Wells' stroll through the Montmarte of Langston Hughes, complete with brief histories of the African-American experience in that legendary neighborhood, introduces readers to a corner of Paris little known to many Americans, including many blacks themselves. And my favorite essay has to be Valerie J. Brooks' "Liberte," a melancholy tale by a daughter of a distant, brutal father, with whom she shared an often tense, sometimes tender relationship, and the dreaded visit to Paris that would serve as the ultimate healing.

Dalia Sofer's "A Prenuptial Visit to Chartres," however, doesn't quite resonate as well as the others, its narrative about (what else?) two sisters who visit the famed cathedral prior to the marriage of one a bit of a yawner. And while I enjoyed Georgia Hesse's "The Source of the Seine," it reads too much like a Lonely Planet essay, perhaps a wee bit too smug, too anxious to be "quirky."

Cusumano herself contributes an essay of her own memories of France, complete with the classic French themes of illicit love, a shared lust for food, and a trail of broken hearts. She establishes her own Francophile bona fides, so it's not as if she's a mere clerk in the proceedings, employed only to gather essays into semi-coherent form.

Overall, it's a solid effort, and if the true test of an anthology's merit is whether or not it entices the reader to seek out additional work by the contributors, then perhaps this book has done its job. I, for one, can't wait to read the rest of Reichl's memoir, Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table, from which her contribution was pulled. And I definitely want to track down other writings by Wells and Brooks. (Toklas' essay, sadly, suffered from a surfeit of such tortured syntax that I'm reluctant to read anything else by her for fear that my mind might suddenly implode from the effort.)

On the other hand, those seeking more insights into the American experience in France (and make no mistake, this book has a distinctly American flavor), particularly from a woman's perspective, would be better off going directly to the original source material, whether it's Julia Child or Fisher or Edith Wharton or any number of other literary heavyweights who've spent considerable time in-country. Many of the essays in this book, while uniformly well-written, can at times veer into the standard cliches of the wide-eyed foreigner in France. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the market is already supersaturated with that kind of material.

In the editor's defense, the book's only ambition is for its authors to "describe the country they love and why they fell under its spell." (Although I would argue that Halliday's piece only barely fulfills this directive. One gets the sense that Halliday doesn't necessarily love France, but she does at least find it hilarious.) It's not meant to be anything more than an homage to the France that we all know and love: the food, the pleasures of the table as well as of the flesh, the undeniable beauty of the countryside. And for many Francophiles, particularly those who miss the gentle irony and wit of Peter Mayle's early work, that is more than enough.

France, A Love Story, makes for an absorbing read, particularly on a rainy afternoon with a cup of tea and a plate of crumbly madeleines by your side. But you might want to have Child's My Life in France or Lucinda Holdforth's must-read True Pleasures: A Memoir of Women in Paris ready and waiting in the wings. Consider this anthology an eclectic selection of hors d'oeuvres for the meatier, more layered and multi-faceted meals Child and Holdforth offer in their own books.

Bon appetit!

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