France 2011: L’Affaire

In my first post, I talked about a reading list for a trip made in 1994 in the Southwest USA. Fast forward to the present, September 2011, in the French Alps, Haut-Savoie to be specific. I am in Europe for four months, which required much research to choose the right books to pack for the trip. (More on the wisdom of packing hard-copy novels versus Kindle later.) We are in a Gite in Doussard, which is at the foot of Lake Annecy, a beautifully blue lake that is a mecca for para-sailing and also tourists, which is why we did not venture here until post July/August high tourist season.Cezanne famously stayed and painted here at the Lake.

Cezanne "Lac Annecy"; photo of the lake today

For those who don’t know about Gites, these are wonderful accommodations, most often the rural locations and typically older buildings renovated for guests. The concept of Gite celebrates the patrimonie (history) of the area, and is a brilliant idea. I first learned about Gites in 1995 when looking for accommodation for a sabbatical leave the following spring. A colleague, Professor Savoie (how appropriate for a professor of French!) clued me into the Gite concept. We found a lovely one near Beaune in Pernand-Vergelesses, a wine village on the Cote d’Or in Burgundy. The building itself was an old barn, wonderfully renovated for an apartment.

Our sojourn in Doussard is for two weeks, the minimum time that I felt required in order to feel at least somewhat “at home” in a French village, which I translate in to the following: daily walking to the boulangerie for the lunchtime baguette, getting to be known at La Poste, being familiar with the surroundings. It means that we’ve hiked locally to cascades (waterfalls) just a couple of kilometres from where we are living, and that we can fairly well breeze through the round-abouts.

But what to read to kick off this adventure? Because we knew we were hiking at Chamonix/Mont Blanc, I chose Diane Johnson’s 2003 novel L\’Affaire. Although I was unfamiliar with her work, she is the author of the very popular Le Mariage and Le Divorce. The main character, Amy Hawkins, is a young dot.com entrepreneur who has made a bundle when the start-up company she and friends inaugurated is sold. She decides that she needs “culture” and thus goes to the French Alps for a ski holiday, to be followed by French cooking classes.

First of all, I have to say that while I enjoy satire, sometimes it is a bit difficult to recognize at the get-go. This comes from having been reared to revere literature, particularly classic literature, so as an English major in a university in Missouri, I had some difficulty in getting the point when reading “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift, “Rape of the Lock,” by Alexander Pope, or Tristam Shandy by Sterne. Okay, I was more alert when presented with a novel such as Shamela, a rather obvious take-off on Pamela. Eventually, I’ll catch on as in Swift’s work when he finally lets the cat out of the bag and notes that he’s had it on good authority “from an American,” that a two-year old child makes a “delicious ragout.”

So, thus, I am reading L’Affaire and thinking, “Is there a sympathetic character to be had in this story?” Well, no, not actually. This is all about social commentary, and it is rather biting! French, British, American. Each one comes in for a slicing and dicing. It seems light-hearted at first, in spite of the fact that two of the skiers at the upscale resort where Amy has retreated have been buried in an avalanche, leaving a toddler as well as Kip–the wife’s 14 year old brother (who may be the sole sympathetic role). Will the couple of this May-December romance survive? What will happen if the elderly husband passes in France as opposed to Great Britain? How will the inheritance laws of each country affect who gets the estate, which becomes important to the current family as well as to the two children of a former marriage, not to say also to the illegitimate French daughter of a one night stand. And, there are plenty of potential beaus for Amy, too. Which one will she choose.

The story moves from the ski hill to Paris, where Amy continues her self-improvement plan, learning how to make a souffle and finally getting rid of the Heidi hairdo at the urging of her French adviser. It all becomes quite humorous and ironic when it becomes clear that no one is to be taken seriously, and it ends on a laugh out loud round up of future events. A mild thumbs up for it as a good read but certainly a good start to a sojourn in this neck of the woods.

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