This is a true memoir by an American woman, now middle-aged, recalling her stay in France in her early 20s, when she worked as an au pair in a château in the Loire Valley. Her purpose in going was to learn to speak French, because her ambition was to be an airline stewardess, for which she needed to be able to offer a foreign language, and she felt total immersion in France would be a fast-track to fluency. So far so good, but the job description of the au pair position she sought in France with a well-to-do family in the Loire Valley called for some knowledge of the language, and she admits she lied on the application form, trusting to luck that it wouldn’t matter. Cue alarm bells…
The premise of the book is strong: how will a young American girl cope with the cultural changes of living abroad without her family and friends and with absolutely no knowledge of the language? Will she triumphantly return to take up the airline job of her dreams. I was looking forward to reading how she approached the challenge and to enjoying the beautiful setting, seen through the eyes of an expat.
She doesn’t really seem to have taken much notice of the culture, at one point referring to local architecture as Tudor, an English royal family, not a French one – as unforgivable as it would be to describe Stratford-upon-Avon as Bourbon.
The fact that her mission was successful, in terms of learning French, is proven from the start by the inclusion of French phrases throughout the book, usually immediately translated into English, but not as effectively as she might think, because I did spot some inadvertent errors, e.g. “pas de problem” instead of “pas de problème”. (I studied French from ages 11-18 so my knowledge is pretty good, but there may be mistakes that passed me by. She should have it thoroughly read by a French native to be sure.)
However, we do not learn whether she then went on to secure her planned airline job, which would have been good to know.
The writing was competent technically, though she occasionally uses words wrongly e.g. “sporadic chateaux” to mean buildings dotted along the river; “many people esteemed their efforts” – that’s not a verb; “I lathered it with peach jam” when she means “slathered”. Her use of language is often awkward and strange, e.g. “I observed loads of berries entering her mouth” suggests sentient blackberries forcing their way in – an odd way to describe one of her young charges greedily eating too much fruit. (It’s not an attempt at humour: there are many other equally clunky phrases which are not at all funny.)
She also has an oddly mechanical and way of expressing her emotional reactions in terms of body parts, e.g. “My heart rate increased”, “my pulse rate quickened”, “my adrenaline surged as competing thoughts entered my mind”, “my right eyebrow shot upward”. This awkward phrasing has the opposite effect to her intention: these are detached, almost medical descriptions as if written by Star Trek’s Mr Spock, unable to understand emotion. I suppose some passages could be seen as an insightful depiction of clinical depression (with which I’ve had brushes so am not unsympathetic), but to me it came across as awkward, bad writing: “Unhappiness and loneliness clung to me, pulling down my shoulders, eyes and mouth, prompting a tongue thrashing from the image staring back at me.”
I was disappointed that there was so little description of the area and its culture, particularly as the cover focuses on the sense of history and place: I’d expected it to be part travelogue, as well as about the girl’s emotional journey and career trajectory. Instead, the narrative focuses on her anger at her treatment by the French host family, who struck me as very hospitable, including her in family events as if she were a close relation, not a paid employee. They were also enormously forgiving of her lie about her language ability, which leaves her trying to care for two small children without being able to communicate with them, while their mother, eight months pregnant on Linda’s arrival, goes into labour. As well as paying her wages, they also buy her a season ticket into town and help her find and pay for educational courses at the nearby college to help her learn the French that she was meant to have known as a condition of her employment.
While one can understand and forgive a certain amount of naivety in a young girl (early 20s) on her first trip abroad, it struck me as extraordinary that writing this book 30 years later, she seems to have acquired no greater self-knowledge or perspective on her trip. She still bears huge grudges, continuing to present herself as the innocent victim cruelly abused by her employers.
Star rating: 2 stars because there aren’t huge numbers of typos (though still too many for approval), and the main technical weakness is wooden, mechanical writing, peppered with poor use of language. If this were a work of fiction, I’d be complaining that there was virtually no character development, as the girl appears to learn nothing from her experience.
A very disappointing read, especially because I’d recently read a similar American-girl-in-Europe memoir, written after a gap of 30 years, and that book, “31 Days” by Marcia Gloster, set in Austria, was head and shoulders above it, and I’d kind of been expecting “French Illusions” to be a similar experience in a different country.