Book Tuesday: La Seduction

Today’s post is later than normal. Our car arrived in Tacoma! Yay! We drove to pick it up and drop off the rental car at the Seattle airport, so I’ve been in a car all day and have the sore behind to prove it. It felt so wonderful to be in our own car again! Anyway, sorry I’m late, but on to our regularly scheduled post…

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I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that truly captures the essence of France for me. I’ve read travel narratives intended to entertain that fall flat with cultural stereotypes. I’ve enjoyed the Peter Mayle books the most, because he writes about Provence with such affection and delight, but even they do not convey my experience of France. I’m always a sucker for yet another book on French culture, though, in the hopes I will find someone whose vision matches mine.

La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life by Elaine Sciolino approaches France, particularly Paris, from the “charm offensive” point of view. From dress to food, perfume, and even politics, Sciolino attempts to bridge the gap between our two cultures by explaining the French need to infuse beauty and sensuality into all aspects of life.

Whenever I read a book like this, I am interested not only in the content as it stands on its own, but its relevance to my own life. Is there information that is useful for me? To that question, I can answer yes. Over time I have learned to create a more aesthetic life, racing less from task to task and focusing more on quality of life. I’ll never dress like a sophisticated Parisian woman, though I have learned a bit more about combining scarves and hats (more on this tomorrow) with my hiking pants and sweat-wicking tops. I don’t mind the occasional vase of flowers to dress up the house, and I look for little ways to add “plaisir” (pleasure) to my day. Sometimes the small touches bring great joy!

One thing I do not learn from any of these books is what the poorer French, especially those living on the outskirts of Paris, have to say. No one seems to ask them what their lives are like. So we tend to get a distorted picture of the French from its upper crust, and this book, which details interviews the author had with high muckety mucks, including Sarkozy, is no exception.

Still, Sciolino has plenty of fun stories to tell, and she doesn’t hesitate to share her reactions to what we American women would consider sexism or even harassment. She delights in her dealings with a local butcher, learns to not run around in sweat clothes (you might bump into someone you know and have coffee), and revels in sublime French food. She reflects on changes occurring in France — fewer farms, for example, and the second highest consumption of McDonald’s hamburgers behind the U.S. (I’ve been inside a French McDonald’s, and it was so jammed that even my laid-back hubby freaked out a little.)

La Seduction seduces, to a degree. If you’re a francophile, you’ll probably enjoy it, and reading it made me a bit “homesick” for a visit.¬†Sciolino shines best when she’s talking about her interviews over the years. Other reviewers have called her to task for describing a dinner party (they called it boring), but I loved that segment of the book. For this party, Sciolino prepared as best she could, trying to follow the intricate rules of protocol — only to find that the French themselves often broke the rules. To me, it described, in a nutshell, the impossibility, no matter how hard one tries, to truly understand French culture.

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