In honor of Bastille Day, July 14, we're taking a look at two recent paperback releases that touch on France, the country that essentially bankrolled the American Revolution. Didn't know that? No surprise. It's amazing what they don't teach in schools these days.
Author Rebecca Ramsey was living with her husband and two children in Greer, S.C., when the Michelin Tire Co. transferred hubby to France, and the South Carolina mom found herself in another world. Ramsey's book about her family's four-year stay in France doesn't evince the euphoric, "and then I ate ..." tone of Peter Mayle's books on the wealthy ex-pat life in Provence -- which is what makes her book more interesting. She's not as lyrical a writer as Mayle, but she's down to earth and witty as she describes her family's adjustments to the environs of Clermont-Ferrand, a third-tier French city where Michelin is headquartered, four hours south of Paris.
Ramsey gives us the nitty-gritty of real people adjusting to the ways of another land, told with humor, befuddlement, and, ultimately, insight. Her husband is either at the office or on a business trip most of the time, so it's up to her to navigate everyday life in their new country. The neighbor across the street is a know-it-all busybody; the kids' school routines are puzzling; and even a simple trip to the bank becomes a frustrating struggle with language and a bewildering security system. But she keeps on keeping on, learning to appreciate a culture which, as she discovers, looks more familiar than it really is.
Ramsey's self-deprecating wit warms the book's tone throughout, for instance in her opening description of a welcoming speech by the school's directrice: "It is my something to something you, something to a something something something." Anyone who has learned embarrassing lessons while trying to cross a language barrier in a foreign country will easily relate.
Ramsey and her family gradually grow to understand, and even adopt, many of their new country's attitudes and customs, including a strong respect for privacy and the habit of shopping in several small stores rather than in a supermarket. Well, most of the time. Ramsey is also clear-eyed enough to realize at one point that she's been kidding herself on how "French" she was becoming. One winter day, she enters a bookstore and suddenly notices all the "regular" French women in stylish skirts, high heels, and chic leather blazers, while "I'm standing there in my big red field jacket and clunky black clogs ... like a frumpy giant."
The Ramseys are now back in South Carolina, where they still exchange letters with the nosy neighbor who, once they got to understand her, became a dear friend -- even if she did gripe when Ramsey's kids played outside without shoes.
Irene Nemirovsky's gorgeous, diamond-hard novel about the German occupation of France is now available in paperback. By now, most book lovers know the novel's amazing backstory: Ukrainian Jewish immigrant and popular French novelist begins writing a five-part suite of novels about World War II as she and her family flee Paris, hours ahead of the Germans. She has time to only finish two novels before she's taken away to Auschwitz, where she dies at 39. Her daughter discovers the novels 60 years later and they become Suite Francaise, essentially the first novel about the war.
The book overflows with surges of clear-headed, lyrical writing and dispassionate observations worthy of Chekhov. It begins with "Storm in June," in which a diverse cast of Parisians join thousands of other compatriots in the chaotic evacuation of the city. Nemirovsky is masterful, drawing out scenes of intimate emotions while bringing to life a sweeping panorama of human action under great stress. Those include an older couple's selfless compassion for other refugees, a self-important artist's hypocrisy and cowardice, some refugees turning to God, others turning into animals, and on and on.
The second section, "Dolce," is set a year later in a farming village under occupation, where residents come to terms with the fact that life must continue despite the Germans. Nemirovsky builds small human dramas and interactions of villagers into another portrait of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Her sharp, insightful writing propels the story and is filled with empathy for everyone suffering from the war, even German soldiers. Nemirovsky's accomplishment, writing in the midst of the fire, and under immense pressure and constant threat, was nothing short of miraculous. Her own tragic end is a stark reminder of the depths of what was lost through Nazi barbarism.
Note: Another previously unpublished Irene Nemirovsky novel, titled Chaleur du Sang (Fire In The Blood) was found after the publication of Suite Francaise, and will be published in translation in the United States in September.