Nonfiction - Memoir
2011 Sourcebooks, Inc.
Finished on 7/15/12
Rating: 3/5 (So-so)
Paris in July Challenge 2012
My new home has no indoor loo, no bathtub, no kitchen sink and no hot water. It has flowery brown wallpaper in almost every room, damp climbing up the crumbly walls and a gaping hole looking down into a dank cellar instead of a kitchen floor. Then there’s the pile of rubbish the size of the Pyrenees in the rear courtyard. I don’t even have the clothes for this kind of life. After a decade and a half of working in fashion, most of my wardrobe is designed for going to cocktail parties—or, at the very least, breakfast at Claridges—and my shoes are so high that I need a Sherpa and an oxygen tank to wear them.
Thirtysomething fashion editor Karen has it all: a handsome boyfriend, a fabulous flat in west London, and an array of gorgeous shoes. But when her boyfriend leaves, she makes an unexpected decision: to hang up her Manolos and wave good-bye to her glamorous city lifestyle to go it alone in a run-down house in rural Poitou-Charentes, central western France.
Acquiring a host of new friends and unsuitable suitors, she learns that true happiness might be found in the simplest of things—a bike ride through the countryside on a summer evening, or a glass of wine or three in her neighbor’s courtyard.
Tout Sweet is the perfect read for anyone who dreams of chucking away their BlackBerry in favor of real blackberrying and downshifting to a romantic, alluring locale where new friendships, and new loves, are just some of the treasures to be found amongst life’s simple pleasures.
For me, a book full of Post-It flags is typically the sign of a great read. Unfortunately, this was not the case with Tout Sweet. My dear friend Bellezza sent me this book many months ago and it wasn’t until the Paris in July challenge began that I felt compelled to pick it up. I read it in bits and pieces over the course of two weeks and enjoyed it well enough, but it’s not one that I’m singing praises of. There was just something missing that kept it from becoming a hit.
As mentioned, I found several passages worth noting, in spite of my lackluster reaction to this memoir.
On le “colourful” style Français:
And now, here I am, just over a year since I signed the acte final, standing outside Maison Coquelicot, feeling panicked by what I have taken on. I have a feeling that she—for I have decided that the house is definitely feminine—is going to be quite a handful. It doesn’t help that what I know about DIY could be written on the back of a button and that my practical skills start and end at unscrewing lipsticks and spraying scent onto tester strips.I stand in the fierce afternoon sun of the Poitou-Charentes and try to visualize the façade re-rendered with lime plaster and painted creamy white, the dull brown shutters transformed with a coat of pale blue-grey, and hot pink geraniums in terracotta pots lined up on the windowsills. My mission, I remind myself, is to restore this unloved little house to a thing of beauty—to turn Maison Coquelicot into the quintessence of le style Francais. I will give this sad little house back its soul and, in the process, I will learn to lead a simpler, less superficial and more connected life (and stop buying so many pairs of shoes).In contrast to the fashionably minimal décor of my old flat in London, I plan to fill Maison Coquelicot with colour and rustic comforts. The petit salon will be decorated with chintz curtains, colourful rugs and fat sofas piled high with faded floral cushions. The kitchen will have open shelving crammed with storage jars, colourful old china and wooden bowls filled with plump aubergines, lemons and bell peppers. And in the bedrooms I will have cream-coloured iron beds covered with linen sheets and flowery patterned eiderdowns, while the dressing table will overflow with antique perfume bottles and bath oils.I will fill the small courtyard with scented roses, orange-pink geraniums, climbing jasmine and herbs growing in terracotta pots as well as beaten-up wicker chairs and an antique wrought iron table. I will string a row of twinkling fairy lights along the stone walks, watering can in one hand and a glass of ice-cold rose in the other. Maison Coquelicot will burst with colour and pattern and pieces of furniture that look like they have been there forever. There will be stacks of colourful books at every turn, jugs of sweet peas, roses and peonies placed on every surface and candles and antique mirrors in every room. And, most importantly of all, there will be a roaring fire (and willow baskets overflowing with logs) in the petit salon, so that in the evening the house will glow with warmth.
Hmmm, apparently Karen needs to find another word for “colorful.”
On French food markets:
There is a food market taking place in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral and, unlike the few stalls that pass for a market in Villiers, this appears to be the real French deal. People are bustling around with baskets or pull-along shopping trolleys, squeezing, sniffing or sampling the goods. Many stalls sell just one product—goat’s cheese, artichokes or exotic looking breads[…]The produce itself looks very alluring: purple-green cabbages sprouting like big flower brooches, small black prunes glistening like jet beads, heads of purple and white garlic strung together like a necklace. There are aubergines, the same opulent shade of purple-black as a YSL smoking, piles of large mushrooms, their undersides pleated like a Vionnet gown, and stalls selling pungent frills of parsley and basil or velvety green leaves of sage, while plump and shiny red and green peppers nestle in wooden boxes. Unfortunately, none of this is much use to me as I am weeks, if not months, away from a functioning kitchen and mostly living on bread and Brie.
On walking in the French countryside:
And so, on Sunday afternoon on the first day of spring, I put on my trainers and start to walk. I tell myself that I will just walk to the next village of St. Maurice, which is about half a mile away. I walk downhill from Villiers towards the old village with its hotchpotch of old houses with mismatched terracotta-tiled roofs, the peeling paint of the blue-grey shutters visible in the spring sunshine and an explosion of orange-pink geraniums on doorsteps and windowsills. The smell of woodsmoke and damp earth has been replaced by a fresh greenness—notes of green shoots and sap combined with a hint of white florals, most noticeably jasmine. Crossing the little stone bridge, I arrive at the twelfth-century church which has lain on my doorstep, unexplored, for a full seven months.
Ah. The ubiquitous blue-grey shutters and orange-pink geraniums. ;)
On life’s simple pleasures:
I find pleasure in the simple, daily rituals of French life: waking up to the peal of church bells and birds singing above the high stone walls; throwing open the shutters first thing to the sight of sunshine and geraniums; walking up to the bakery on the square to buy freshly baked croissants. And then, after a day working at my computer, the early evening ritual of watering the roses and the potted herbs—basil, sage, chives and rosemary—in the courtyard signifies that it’s time to relax. My favourite ritual of all, however, is hanging out the washing. Having lived in a top-floor flat with no outside space for most of my last ten years in London, being able to peg my clothes on a washing line and watch as they sway seductively in a subtle breeze is a real luxury. There is no bottled scent as lovely as that of just-washed cotton sheets hung out to dry in the sun. Finally, I have found pleasures that do not involve a credit card.
In addition to the repetitive nature of Wheeler’s descriptions, I have another quibble about the author’s style. On many occasions, she will have one individual speaking a line or two of dialogue and within the same paragraph, another person will reply. Here is just one example:
It turned out that Dave had also invited an English friend, Miranda, to dinner. “I think you’ll like her,” he said. “She’s been living out here for about ten years and she’s hilarious.”“How do you know her?” I asked. “She’s helped me out a lot with translation. I met her in the estate agent’s office when she was doing some translating for Victor.”
Those last two lines in red are spoken by Dave, not Karen. It became very confusing trying to sort of who was saying what. This may be isolated to the ARC, but I don’t have a copy of the finished product available to compare the text. I certainly hope that this was all sorted out before the final press run.
Speaking of Dave, I did not care for him (or his obnoxious son) one bit! I didn’t trust him and felt he was using Karen. He conveniently forgot his wallet on more than one occasion, forcing Karen to loan him quite a bit of money, which he never seemed to think was a big deal. It was a very strange friendship and I was never quite sure where it was heading.
I also thought it a bit odd to end the final paragraph of this book with the following:
…And as I turn into the square in Villiers, my heart beats just a little faster at the thought of my new neighbour, who is heading home with my telephone number—so casually asked for—in his pocket. Have you enjoyed this book?
Final Thoughts: In spite of its flaws, Tout Sweet is a mildly entertaining travel memoir. Bellezza and Andi both loved the book, so please read their reviews (here and here) before deciding against it simply because of my ho-hum review.
You may read more about Wheeler’s life in France here.