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My Life in France by Julia Child
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I did not grow up on Julia Child. I’m too young to have watched her TV show, and my mom wasn’t the type to own any of her cookbooks (we stuck to mostly Italian recipes handed down from my dad’s mom and ranch-style cooking- or, if we were unlucky, my British nanny’s “traditional” English dishes she insisted we try). I barely knew who she was before I started cooking a few years ago. I admit that I wasn’t really interested in her until the recent movie Julie and Julia, which definitely made me want to know more. What can I say? Meryl Streep’s powers are infinite.

I say this just so you’re aware that I don’t have any childhood memories that mean that this book is illuminated in a shiny, impenetrable blanket of nostalgia (not that there is anything wrong with those blankets. I have them for other things! Just not for this). Nonetheless, I really liked this book. I don’t want to overstate this. The book is what it says it is, and you should sign up for it because you would like to read about what Julia Child did in France, what came of her trip in France, the writing of French cookbooks, and how she got started as The French Chef. There is food, and a lot of it. Everything from incredibly detailed memories of menus she ate or cooked for people in France in 1950, to explanations of her experiments with translating French foods to the American market to the trials and tribulations of publishing her cookbook. So far, so expected. And, frankly, so good. She is excellent at describing a sense memory of taste so that even if you’re not quite sure what a dish is, you’re very sure that you want to eat it.

The unexpected part, which I loved, was Julia’s personal transformation. I don’t necessarily mean the inspirational tale of finding happiness in going native in a foreign country that inspired a thousand imitators of the Under the Tuscan Sun variety. I meant the other side of the story, her prickly growth as a person. The way these stories are told (and it should be noted that they are written by her great-nephew, though with her approval), her very distinctive voice seems to express not only the sort of warmth and charm that drew people to her, but also the other woman hiding behind that. I really identified with that other woman that she seemed embarrassed to talk about too much. She was the girl who was smart and restless enough to long for more than the slot that life had lined up for her (housewife in unthinking Republican Pasadena), but, so it seemed, with a self-esteem low enough that she didn’t think herself as smart as the artsy, literate people that she longed to be around (like her husband). I could relate to that- I've been that girl. Forever in-between in your own mind, not good enough for what you want, but knowing you need more than what would be acceptable. It was fascinating to hear her talk about politics of the time period (and this was a surprisingly political book), whether French or American- and then stop herself with one of her patented sweet exclamations (“Phooey!”, “Whew!”)- as if she was suddenly self-conscious of talking about something that she was not an expert about and didn’t want people to think she was getting above herself or something. She was extremely self-aware about her limits, too. There was a wonderful passage from when she was about 40 or so when she was arguing with a man of conservative opinions when she realized that she had “emotions instead of opinions,” which was why she couldn’t express herself very well. She didn’t come out and say it, but it seemed implied that she was still a young girl rebelling emotionally against her Republican father- which had seemed to her sufficient opinion until that point. She immediately resolved to educate herself and read, with Paul, a wide assortment of French and American newspapers. How many people are willing to admit that kind of ignorance and take on such a deep project of self-improvement at that age? In my experience, that seems to be about the time where people start to get set in their ways and are all, “Oh well, too late not to suck at life now!”

Once she had found her new passion, she also became the most amazingly hard worker. She spent months perfecting a mayonnaise recipe that no one had ever written down, and then had to find a way to translate it to an American market that has ingredients that make for a completely different chemistry. She was the first person to write down a recipe for French bread in English, and it took her over 200 pounds of flour to get it right. She wrote to scientists who worked with Hershey’s to get a demonstration of the chemical reactions of chocolate. It was the most amazing thing- like she finally found a little niche that she could make herself have enough self-confidence to succeed in, despite her doubts, and suddenly we find out that she’s probably way smarter than the people she’s been writing about in awe the entire book, whether chefs or otherwise. She eats this amazing meal when she first arrives in France that starts her on this journey towards her ultimate career as a French chef, and about halfway through the book (and twenty years later), she goes out to a restaurant and has another amazing meal- but instead of reacting in awe and worshiping the magic of the French character, she guesses, accurately, everything that is in the dish and goes home and reproduces it almost exactly, and it is just as good as the lady in her restaurant who has been making this dish since the dawn of time. The way she talks about her obsession with these details of why food works is still almost…defensive, like she had to explain it to someone a half-century later, when she's been proven right about having done it over and over again. It’s so true- once the insecure girl who is too tall, too smart, too something- always that girl, successful or not.

Ultimately, you love her because she always brings things back to this place of happiness and, “oh well, the show must go on!” no matter what- but the way she told the stories and negotiated herself to that place was very realistic. This was not an unrelenting “always look on the bright side of life,” montage. There were difficult people in her life, difficult spots in her marriage, difficult moments in her career- the fact that she still remembers verbatim quotes and fights from forty years earlier is telling- and she’s clear about it when she doesn’t like something or someone and why. She doesn’t have an American sense of everything will turn out all right in the end, but rather this very French tant pis acceptance that shit happens and life is shit and oh well, wade through it like a big girl. She doesn’t try to deny anything or erase it or obsess about appearing perfect when she wasn’t- which is something I find irritating about American self-help books and TV fantasies. Her philosophy about serving your food even if it comes out bad and not apologizing for is sort of the epitome of this rejection of the hide your dirty laundry ideals of the mid-century. She’s perfectly frank about her fights with Paul Child, her problems with her co-authors on the book, her difficulties with her Republican father, her failures in the kitchen and on her TV show. It isn’t in the exhibitionist way that you see so often these days either. She’s a good girl, but she won’t let herself be walked all over- she is going to have her say and that’s just fair. I don’t know if I am doing a very good job describing this voice, but believe me when I say that it is as captivating in print as it is on television.

All in all, a surprisingly down to earth book from a classy lady who was much more complicated than I thought she was. Come for the food, stay for the voice of the woman telling you about it- and don’t let her talk herself down! She’s worth the price of admission and more.
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Reading Progress

August 24, 2009 – Shelved
Started Reading
June 1, 2011 – Finished Reading
June 22, 2011 – Shelved as: 20th-century-postwar-to-late
June 22, 2011 – Shelved as: examined-lives
June 22, 2011 – Shelved as: cultural-meetings
June 22, 2011 – Shelved as: mawwiageiswhatbringsustogethertoday
June 22, 2011 – Shelved as: tres-francais
June 22, 2011 – Shelved as: grande-dames
June 23, 2011 –
page 175
55.21% "I'm identifying with her way more than I had expected to."
June 24, 2011 –
page 215
67.82% "The voice, the voice! Could I be more charmed? I submit I could not."
August 12, 2011 – Shelved as: beyond-the-horizon

Comments Showing 1-26 of 26 (26 new)

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Suzanne Nice review! I've been thinking about reading this - now I know I must read it:)

Kelly You should! I can't imagine circumstances under which you wouldn't smile reading this. It is delightful.

message 3: by Kelly (last edited Jun 29, 2011 08:13AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly It is a fairly easy, breezy read, but it is also honest and you get an amazing feel for her personality from it. It isn't "light" in the sense of there's nothing at all to think about here. With your added memories associated with her, I think this would really work for you!

message 4: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! Wonderful! A distinct chunk of my childhood memories are the cooking shows on public broadcasting - Graham Kerr, Martin Yan, and Julia Child. I remember smirking when I first saw Julia Child, much older, still with a cooking show where a guest cook would make a dish and she was just there in the kitchen, chatting and tasting.

Kelly Yeah, it is a bit shameless the way she got trotted out towards the end of her life so people could make money. I mean, I only saw her on one of those shows with Jacques Pepin (when she was still sort of helping the cook), but she was still charming!

message 6: by Kelly (last edited Jun 29, 2011 10:07AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly Yeah, exactly! I get the feeling like she's one of those people you'd love to have a long lunch with who never gets boring.

Kelly As long as I wasn't the one cooking; can you imagine the pressure?

OMG, that's true. Okay, maybe just drinks then. Oh wait, her husband was a famous wine connoisseur. Damnit. No food or drink activities- Hmmm. Maybe I could take her bowling or something.

Kelly Elizabeth wrote: "I'm sure she was an excellent bowler."

She couldn't be worse than me, anyway. I used to have some sort of good luck charm hovering over me when I was little that made me artificially good. Then I hit ten, and all bets were off for some reason. The bowling gods are cruel.

Kelly Elizabeth wrote: "I'm a pretty lousy bowler and yet we seem to do it as "team building exercises" fairly often."

Argh. Perhaps you could suggest rock climbing or something instead? That would have trust belaying and everything! .. that is unless you don't trust anyone.

(My old office used to make us do kayak races. Every year, someone always fell into the poisonous Potomac and lost their shoes. It's a shoe eating river.)

Kelly I'm shocked there isn't a Brothers Grimm tale that warns us of its perils.

Chris Anderson wrote one.

Kelly For real? What is it called?

Chris It's a scene in "The Snow Queen".

Kelly Well, damn. It really is true that all the stories in the world have been told before. I suppose at least I can now comfort myself that my loss of my shoes made me a temporary fairy tale character.

Chris LOL

There are also cinderella variants where the shoe gets carried away by water.

Kelly And the sexist lack of swimming lessons for women strikes again!

message 17: by Miriam (new) - added it

Miriam The Indonesian version of Cinderella has something carried away by the river as well... maybe her sarong. I mostly remember that there is a crocodile instead of a godmother.

Kelly I have to confess I might be hard pressed to listen to the advice of a crocodile. Ulterior motives!

message 19: by Miriam (new) - added it

Miriam She does get eaten. Temporarily.

Kelly Oh, temporarily! Well, then. An excellent fairy godmother! No worse than the God and Jonah and the whale situation anyway.

message 21: by JZ (new) - rated it 5 stars

JZ Thank you for the wonderful review!

Kelly Thanks for the nice compliment!

message 23: by Karen (new) - added it

Karen Hi Kelly I just left you a message on your blog. I'm the foolish one who tried to listen to My Brilliant Friend on audio and didn't like it and then forgot to try reading itt until I read your beautiful review of the last book in the series. What another home run you hit right out of the park with your review of Julia Child. I'm serious, you should write and sell your own books. You are so talented as a writer. You probably don't remember your review about Julia Child. My friend on goodreads just recommended the Julia Child book to me. I read her review and email right after i wrote to you on your blog about being turned off of My Brilliant Friend because I'm guessing I was turned off because I listened to it on audio. So thank you for another remarkable review.

message 24: by Karen (new) - added it

Karen Anything you review convinces me to read it. Please send me a friend request on goodreads as I love reading any review you write. You would be helping me not to run out of books to read.

Kelly Thanks for your compliments, it is much appreciated. Just like the other ones! Very kind of you to take the time. :)

I really do think that you should read My Life in France! I really loved my experience with it and I never even grew up with Julia Child.

message 26: by Donna (new)

Donna Primaverra Great review, thank you. Just watching the film and it's intrigued me.

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