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Book Review: Reliving French connections

Email|Print| Text size + By Erika Dreifus
Globe Correspondent / November 7, 2004

Along with the approach of New England winter come travel fantasies. Someplace warm and sandy may come to mind first, but for many of us, France remains eternally high on the list, whatever the season.

This winter, feed that fantasy with recollections from 25 women on how they have experienced life in France and meet the people and places that remain so clear in their memories.

If there were one theme that runs through this collection, it might be "connection." What connects these non-French women to France? Why do they love it? Why would they write about it? As the title (and perhaps stereotype) might suggest, the book contains a number of stories about love affairs, in the usual sense. The collection's best essays, however, aren't necessarily the ones about the passion-filled Franco-American couplings. They're the ones in which the authors show us how something about France connected with them in another way.

For many of the writers here, the French language itself provides the key. Several women allude to the power of the language, its appeal, its allure. In fact, the book's concluding essay, by Judy Kronenfeld, is titled "Speaking French." Editor Camille Cusumano establishes the primacy of the language early on, when she writes in the introduction about her own discovery of French at age 13:

"Speaking French was sexy. It made me sit up and use my body in startling ways. It meant a voyage to new places in my lips, tongue, nasal passage, and abdomen. My whole body resonated with the discovery of challenging vowels, consonants, and diphthongs. The new sounds ignited enough visual imagery to sustain a budding romantic."

It is not difficult for a Francophilic American reader to identify with such sentiments or with the remarks that come up in several other essays about the trials and tribulations an American can encounter when, say, trying to pronounce the French "r."

Among the most poignant and memorable pieces in this collection must be the essays by Constance Hale and Valerie J. Brooks. Hale's "Paris Revisited," set during a trip Hale and her mother made to celebrate the mother's 65th birthday, is replete with the theme of connection, as Hale begins "to learn the secrets of my mother's time in Paris, to become familiar with the subterranean corners of her history. And she, in turn,

France, A Love Story: Women Writeabout the FrenchExperience

Edited by Camille CusumanoSeal Press, 297 pp., paper, $15.95learned mine."

In Brooks's "Libert," on the other hand, we follow the author on her very first, and much anticipated, trip to Paris, in the company of her husband, Dan. But as with Hale's story, there's another traveler-parent on this trip: this time, the ghost of the author's father, who was among the American soldiers accompanying General Eisenhower in France on V-E Day. For many reasons that Brooks manages to explain carefully and calmly, her father, dead for years, haunts her for most of the trip.

Susan M. Tiberghien offers a very different, but also lovely, portrait of "the French experience" in her essay, "Madame Michel," a tribute to a former neighbor. During the 1950s, Tiberghien, an American recently married to a Frenchman, was living in a village outside Arles. Madame Michel took charge of teaching her how to be a village housewife.

To be sure, there is considerably lighter fare to be sampled in this anthology as well. You'll read about fashion and great meals and junior-year-abroad programs. Still, the heart of the book is in the maturity of its voices of experience. Writers include M. F. K. Fisher, and Alice B. Toklas, among others. As Cusumano writes, it can be "challenging to linger past the wine and pastries and to observe and reflect as we reach across the eternal Franco-Anglo cultural divide."

Those who can manage it may offer us the best love stories of all.

Erika Dreifus is a freelance writer in Cambridge.

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