Book review: Lucy Wadham's The Secret Life of France

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This article was written by Elen Roberts, published on 16th May 2011 and has been read 19235 times.

Elen Roberts, off on her year abroad, reviews Lucy Wadham's The Secret Life of France for year abroad students - funny, sarcastic, personal and a real eye-opener for any student planning on a year abroad in l'Héxagone...
Everything You Wanted to Know About France But Were Too Afraid to Ask:

Although many members of our generation are keen travellers, very few of us will ever truly integrate into a foreign society, even if we are lucky enough to spend a substantial amount of time abroad. In many cases, this can be explained by a lack of linguistic aptitude and cultural openness, both of which are crucial in order to “go native”. Toytown Germany, for example, which serves as a useful website for Germany’s English-speaking population, includes many discussion forums around the subject of culture shock and integration. Before leaving for Munich as part of my year abroad, I remember eagerly scouring the different threads in search of measured and insightful opinions on life over there. I was, however, dismayed to find so many of the ex-pats complaining incessantly about their adoptive country, sometimes quite offensively to my mind. Yet, given that many of them don’t even speak German, it seems obvious that they would have a hard time integrating. I mean, what on Earth did they expect? This lack of linguistic aptitude thus skewed their viewpoints a great deal and, I would go as far as to say, even render them invalid to a foreigner who speaks fluent German and doesn’t expect nor want everything over there to mirror his/her life at home.

As a result of their discouraging and partly inaccurate comments, I found Lucy Wadham’s The Secret Life of France, which I read just before moving to France, both enlightening and refreshing. She is in an optimal position to analyse the French, as she married a Frenchman (and subsequently divorced him), moved to Paris and had her four children there. She has been living in Paris for the past 25 years. She is thus in a perfect position to comment: fully integrated into the culture, but as a foreigner, still retaining a certain detachment and objectivity. Her critique is often trenchant and sometimes very funny. She exposes, just to name a few, the French educational system, which leaves little room for creative development despite being broad and rigorous; the Parisian bourgeoisie’s libertine way of life and casual attitude to extra-marital affairs; how the concept of multiculturalism just doesn’t work despite the Republic’s core value of égalité; as well as the French’s condescending and reductionist attitudes towards women and their bodies. Although I’ve only been in France for 2 months, a lot of what she says has already chimed with my experiences so far. Despite her critique, however, she is no cynic. At heart she clearly is in love with her adoptive country and even applies for French citizenship towards the end of the text, although she rather hilariously changes her mind just because the clerk is rude to her.

The book is slightly different to a traditional autobiography in that it veers from first person narration, based on observations and experiences from her private life, to almost academic socio-political analysis. Indeed, the book struck me as more of a collection of essays (each chapter explores a different facet of French society) as opposed to a conventional novel with a clear thread of action. Her analysis is brilliant, especially the chapter on Franco-Arab relations, which gives us an overview of the Algerian civil war, Islamic movements in France, as well as the reasoning behind the ban on religious symbols (e.g. the hijab in state schools). I also found the chapter on being a woman in France depressingly accurate in that we are judged solely on our appearance and that there is a distinct lack of solidarity among women here, as they all seem to be competing against one another for male attention. Triste.

Although I enjoyed learning more about France’s history and culture, a little more introspectiveness from the author would have benefited the book, in my opinion. I was quite eager to hear more about Ms. Wadham’s private life and what compelled her, for example, to marry her husband in the first place, as he does sound quite atrocious, let alone have her first baby whilst she was technically still a student at Oxford. I was also wondering how she managed to make close friends in a city as notoriously impersonal and unwelcoming as Paris and whether she was actually happy during her early years, as the book often conveys otherwise. I suppose that some places inexplicably draw you in, even if there are many aspects of them that you cannot stand, which could arguably be described as the novel’s overall message.

To conclude, this book is definitely worth a read if you were ever curious about what makes our Gallic cousins tick, and especially good preparation for any linguists who are in the middle of planning their years abroad in France!

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