The Secret Life of France

Every season brings its load of new books about France and the French, freshly baked by British or American expatriates who have taken a decade or two to understand what makes this country and its people so different from Britain and the British, the US and the Americans. Most such accounts get lost in the stack of brash, stereotypical covers emblazoned with berets, naked breasts or the Eiffel Tower wrapped in bleu, blanc, rouge. Very few make a lasting impression on readers, who usually regret these purchases, made in a hurry at St Pancras or the Gare du Nord on the way to a romantic weekend.

There are exceptions, however. For example, the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik wrote Paris to the Moon, a moving and insightful account of his few years as Paris correspondent, and in a lighter, fictional vein, Stephen Clarke made an impact with his witty study of French life, A Year in the Merde. This summer brings a delightful and illuminating book about France by the novelist Lucy Wadham.

Having lived in France for the past 26 years, Wadham interweaves her personal story – marriage at 19 to a Parisian from the haute bourgeoisie, four children and then divorce – with a sociological study of the historical and cultural differences between the French and the English. Arriving in France young, Wadham dived into French life with all the zeal of the newly converted. Her embrace of her adoptive country was as passionate as her love affair with her irresistible husband. Being transplanted in this way was often traumatic for her, but although she was frequently bruised by cultural differences, she never stopped trying to understand what lay beneath such misunderstandings.

Readers should not be put off by the first chapter of The Secret Life of France, which opens with the smell of dog shit and urine, and a horrified recollection of people dunking their toast in their breakfast coffee. They should also pass quickly over the inevitable account of sex à la française and the tyranny of the pursuit of Pleasure over Truth – you will have heard this all before. It is dismaying to think that Wadham had to appease her publisher with such clichés. By the third chapter, however, these flaws are a distant memory.

Discussing the French obsession with and veneration of physical beauty, Wadham stresses a point often missed by visitors to France. “For the French,” she writes, “beauty does not reside exclusively in the past. It is a living, breathing, endlessly mutating deity. They’re not afraid of modernity, as long as it is beautiful: the TGV is fast but above all beautiful; the glass pyramid of Le Louvre was highly contested at the time yet so beautiful in its transparent purity.”

On relations between men and women in France, she observes that the absence of “sisterhood” in France meant that “in losing one thing I had found another. I learned that the extra­ordinary friendships I had known in Britain were part of a wider landscape, itself not so pretty – a landscaped ravaged by a low-level and persistent war between the sexes. The absence of gender conflict in France has become a source of relief to me. There is no tradition of gender segregation in France because men enjoy the company of women.”

Wadham cleverly uses all sorts of topical examples to illustrate her arguments. For instance, she says at first she couldn’t understand attitudes across the Channel towards Zinédine Zidane’s headbutt in the 2006 World Cup Final. Considered plain silly in England, it was reported in France as sublime. “The key is not winning, nor is it, as our Protestant mythology likes to claim, the joy of simply participating. France loves men like Zidane for their commitment, their virtuosity and their panache, not for their success. Traits like rigour, reserve and resilience are begrudgingly admired but not championed.”

Wadham seems to have spent her time in France in a more or less permanent state of bewilderment. Her experience of giving birth there and of educating her children in the French system provides some of the best material. The British emphasis on breastfeeding is met with incomprehension in France, where three months is considered more than enough. Wadham recalls the choice of her friend Magali, who chose not to breastfeed any of her three children. “She once explained to me that her breasts were her best feature and that she didn’t want to risk damaging them. At the time, her remark had struck me as selfish – immoral even – but Magali was clearly a devoted mother and her choice was a happy, guilt-free one that has been beneficial to her sexual fulfilment and, by extension, to her whole family.”

Wadham writes well, with effortless wit and keen intelligence, and knows when to draw from Napoleon’s private correspondence, or the plays of Victor Hugo, in order to support some well-turned observation or other. The Secret Life of France ought to be this summer’s Franco-British success.

The Secret Life of France
Lucy Wadham
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!