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Delightful, Girly Books (Almost French and I Capture the Castle)

May 26, 2008

Before the review, I have a quick blogg-y question! If you look to the left, you’ll see my ‘Currently Reading’ list. Before, I just listed titles and authors, with links to Amazon. Last night, I decided to add a little bit of commentary to each of them. Do you like that, or does it make the sidebar look too cluttered? I can’t decide! Now on to books…

Despite the occasional drawbacks, I love being a girl. And sometimes, I just want to read a book that revels in its girliness. But I also want it to be intelligent, funny, insightful, charming: all of those things my good girlfriends are. And, I want to be able to see myself in the writing, and to have the author make me examine my own life. So I tend to be very, very picky. That being said, I’ve recently read two books that lived up to all of my criteria. (I’m not saying these won’t appeal to men too, though.)

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith was a reread, but I read it for the first time over six years ago, so I only remembered bits and pieces of it. I borrowed it from the library in high school, because it was on the Republic of Pemberly’s recommended reading list. It’s not there anymore (it’s been years since I’ve been to that site, so they must have revamped), but I remember the description making it sound great. Then, a few months ago, I read Nancy Pearl’s Famous First Words list, which reminded me of I Capture the Castle. So I decided to bookmooch for a trip down memory lane. And now that I’ve got it, I’m not letting it go!

The book is written as a (actually, three) journals by our precocious narrator, seven-teen-year-old Cassandra. She lives with her older sister Rose, her erratic father, and her artsy stepmother. She also has a younger brother, who comes home during vacations from school. And where is home? A rundown castle in the British countryside. Her father wrote a bestselling book years ago, back when her mother was alive, and they signed a forty-year-lease because the castle’s romanticism just enraptured the father. Unfortunately, Cassandra’s mother died and her small inheritance is used up, and her father hasn’t written a book since. So they’re desperately, as in almost starving, poor. The sisters escape with by reading the classics, especially authors like Austen and the Brontes. Cassandra wants to be a writer, so she’s keeping a journal in order to practice ‘capturing people.’ What she doesn’t realise is that soon, all of their lives will change when the estate owner next door dies, and two young American brothers show up (one of them is the heir). I don’t want to give too much away, but this is a wonderful coming of age story, that looks at love and lust and clothes and fitting in and so much more. It’s set in the interwar period, which explains the clothing discussions, but otherwise it really feels timeless. It’s also really, really funny. When the brothers come, Rose decides to flirt with the older one. But she’s learned all of her feminine powers from reading nineteenth century novels. You can imagine what she acts like! And, there’s an unlucky mistake involving a huge fur coat that had me laughing so hard there were tears in my eyes (it’d be too difficult to try to explain it all here, and I want you to read it for yourself). Smith obviously remembers what it’s like to be in that awkward, not-a-child-but-not-a-grown-up stage, and she’s brought it lovingly to life. I can’t imagine how someone wouldn’t enjoy this book, so go pick it up! Oh-I almost forgot. I bet you’re curious what line got the book on Pearl’s “Famous First Words” list! Here’s the opening sentence: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” (You can read all of my favourite passages at the end of the post, if you want a taste of her writing).

Almost French by Sarah Turnbull
When Sarah Turnbull, an Australian, was in her late twenties, she took a year off from her TV news job to backpack around Europe. While in Romania, she briefly met a Frenchman who invited her to visit him in Paris. Two weeks turned into over ten years, and Almost French is her memoir of being an expat in France. The book’s blurb implies that it’s almost about her love affair, but it’s really not. I mean, obviously she meets him and moves in with him and is in love with him, but the only time it’s mentioned is in the beginning, when Turnbull explains how she ended up in France. Instead, the book is an absolutely brilliant exploration of culture shock and expat life and having to find yourself all over again. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny, which is a difficult thing for a book to achieve. Oh, and there are a bunch of interesting discussions about various aspects of French culture, for all of you Francophiles.

I’ve been staring at my screen for five minutes, typing and deleting this next paragraph (I was going to tell you all about my really hot French lit professor), but I think the book stands on its own. If you’ve ever lived in another country, you’ll identify with Turnbull. If you’ve ever tried to speak a foreign language, you’ll identify with her. If you’ve ever tried to reinvent yourself, when you’re not quite sure who you are, you’ll identify. If you’ve ever been fascinated by people very different from you, ditto. Basically, Turnbull is an Anglo-saxon (how the French refer to Brits/Americans/Australians, lol) everywoman, who has been gracious enough to invite us along for the adventure of her life. I’ve typed out all of my favourite passages at the end, so you can read those if you’re not sure about this one. Turnbull really brings her Paris to life, and it was fun to hang out in her world for awhile.

Favourite Passages (I Capture the Castle)
Then [Rose] said
“Did you think of anything when Miss Marcy said Scoatney Hall was being re-opened?
I thought of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice-where Mrs Bennet says ‘Netherfield Park is let at least.’ And then Mr. Bennet goes over to call on the rich new owner.”
“Mr. Bennet didn’t owe him any rent,” I said.
“Father couldn’t go anyway. How I wish I lived in a Jane Austen novel!”
I said I’d rather be in a Charlotte Bronte.
“Which would be niceset-Jane with a touch of Charlotte, or Charlotte with a touch of Jane?”
This is the kind of discussion I like very much, but I wanted to get on with my journal, so I just said: “Fifty perfect each way would be perfect,” and started to write determinedly.

But words are very inadequate-anyway, my words are. Could any one reading them picture our kitchen by firelight, or Belmotte Tower rising towards teh moon-silvered clouds, or Stephen managing to look both noble and humble? …When I read a book, I put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it-or rather, it is like living it. It make reading so much more exciting, but I don’t suppose many people try to do it.

Never have I felt so seperate from her. And I regret to say that there were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her fairly hard. For she is a girl who cannot walk her troubles off, or work them off; she is a girl to sit around and glare.

“We look conspicuous,” she said, with deepest shame.

It was only while I was changing that I fuly realized what I had let myself in for-I who hate cold water so much that even putting on a bathing-suit makes me shiver. I went down the kitchen stairs feeling like an Eskimo going to his frozen hell.

I wonder if there isn’t a catch about having plenty of money? Does it eventually take the pleasure out of things? When I think of the joy of my green linen dress after I hadn’t had a new dress for ages-! Will Rose be able to feel anything like that after a few years?

Once I got used to the idea of being by myself for so long I positively liked it. I always enjoy the different feeling there is in a house when one is alone in it, and the thought of that feeling stretching ahead for two whole days somehow intensified it wonderfully. The castle seemed to be mine in a way it never had been before; the day seemed specially to belong to me; I even had a feeling that I owned myself more than I usually do. I became very conscious of all my movements-if I raised my arm I look at it wonderingly, thinking, “That is mine!” And I took pleasure in moving, both in the physical effort and in the touch of the air-it was most queer how the air did seem to touch me, even when it was absolutely still. All day long I had a sense of great ease and spaciousness. And my happiness had a strange, remembered quality as though I had lived it before. Oh, how can I recapture it-that utterly right, homecoming sense of recognition?

Of course, what my mind’s eye was trying to tell me was that the Vicar and Miss Marcy had managed to by-pass the suffering that comes to most people-he by his religion, she be her kindness to others. And it came to me that if one does that, one is liable to miss too much along with the suffering-perhaps, in a way, life itself. Is that why Miss Marcy seems so young for he rage-why the Vicar, in spit of all his cleverness, has that look of an elderly baby? I said aloud: “I don’t want to missanything.”

Favourite Passages: Almost French
A slim fellow-Jean-Marc or Marc-Jean, at a guess-starts talking about something he read in Le Monde concerning the push for Australia to become a republic. “why is Australia still tied to England?” he asks me, puzzled. As a staunch republican, privately I am delighted for this opportunity to discuss the issue, to shed some light on it for a foreign audience. Taking a deep breath, I summon up my most eloquent French.
“Many want. Some they don’t want. The old, far example. But I want.”
There is a buzz of rapid conversation as Frederic [her boyfriend] scrambles to elaborate: “It’s just a matter of time…Sarah thinks most young Australians…”
“But why are you still loyal to the Queen?” pursues my interrogator.
Realizing my first answer was hopelessly inadequate, I try to convey some passion.
“No, no true! The Queen, she okay, but not for Australia. Yesterday okay, but not tomorrow.” Pathetically, I look to Frederic who again steps in to decipher my message. …Inside, I fizz with frustration at my inability to communicate. I love these sorts of discussions! Or at least I used to. But it was as though in trying to express myself in another language I’d suddenly plunged fifty IQ points.

In France, vanity is not a vice. Rigorous self-maintenace is imbued form birth-it’s a mark of self pride. Gallic women keep slim not through sweaty spin or pump classes but a strict regime that mizes steely discipline with self-pampering. They take little helpings of each course at dinners and watch how much they drink. To get their bodies back into shape (after they’ve given birth, say) they lather themselves in anticellulite creams and book “thalasso” therapy centers where they spend a week bobbing about in warm tubs of seawater. They have regular pedicures and eyebrow pluckings and weekly “brushing” sessions at the hairdressers. Men are expected to pay close attention to their appearances as well. The loaded phrase “se mettre en valeur” is used all the time. It means “to make the most of yourself.” This is not something the French do when they feel like it: they do it ever day. Sloppiness in appearance is considered a fatal disease. Once it takes hold, you’re on an irreversible downhill slide. You’ve committed the unforgiveable. You’ve let yourself go.

The French don’t dress to make political statements. They don’t like wild innovation or irony when it comes to their appearance. They don’t want to stand out for looking funny or different or eccentric.

Because in Paris you hardly ever see groups of just girls out together. …One day I broacht the subject of Frenchwoman with [my friend, Sophie] and right away she pinpoints the differences. Les francaises-particularly parisiennes, she stresses-perceive those of the same sex as rivals, not as potential friends. “As soon as a Frenchwoman meets another woman, she’ll look her up and down, check out her clothes, her makeup, her shoes. She’ll be very criticical of the other one,” Sophie tells me. “She’ll be thinking: well, she might have nice blue eyes but she’s got a really big bum.” …Sophie’s unequivocal words, which echo what countless people had already told me, bring home a troubling truth: while I’ve been looking at women as potentional new friends, they’ve been sizing up my legs and bottom! Of course, not everyone is competitive and I’ve been to many dinners where girls have been very pleasant to me. But there is no sisterhood in France. The sort of complicity that hints at the possibility of sharing wardrobes and wine, tears and jokes is absent from every encounter.

“If you’re too nice no one will respect you.” [Frederic says] This is a novel concept. Too nice. But he’s right. The French are not impressed by anything as banal as niceness. Smile sweetly at a waiter as you sit down and chances are you’ll be treated with contempt. On the other hand, an air of assured superiority-preferably enhanced by a smart suit-will usually be rewarded with professional deference and prompt service. In an interview, the entrepreneur Francis Holder who heads the hugely successful French bakery chain, Paul, tells me it boils down to rapport de force. “France is a very hierarchical society,” he says. “The whole question of service is linked to old ideas of power and class. The person serving feels inferior to the person being served so they try and show they are important by being rude.” Being too nice only gives them the upper hand: it makes you an easy target.

Culinary failures are not treated lightly in this country, not turned into jokes, no more than a barbecue without beer would amuse Australians. There is a culture of criticism in France that means people don’t hold back from telling you something is bad. As a friend, Francois, once told me, here you don’t have the right to make mistakes. No one is admired for simply “having a go” in France. Whatever your endeavor, you have to succeeed. At French dinners, imperfectplats will be dissected at the table, each guest offering advice on how the recipe could be improved, where the host went wrong, how they would have cooked it differently. …To me their behavior is offensive. But to the French it’s no more than construcive criticism with the earnest aim of ensuring the dish is perfect next time.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2008 10:45 am

    I do like the addition to your sidebar. I don’t think it looks cluttered. Often when I see what people are reading I think “oh, I wonder how they’re enjoying it so far?” and, well, your comments answer that.

    As for the books, I’ve wanted to read I Capture the Castle for so long now! I vowed to read it this year, but all my challenge books keep getting in the way. Your review makes me look forward to it even more, though. It really sounds like something I’d love.

  2. May 26, 2008 11:46 am

    I loved “Almost French.” There is an excellent blog called “Tongue In Cheek” – the author is American and lives in France with her French husband.

  3. May 26, 2008 12:46 pm

    Nymeth, I’m glad you don’t think it’s cluttered! I always wonder the same thing when I see what people are reading, which is why I added some commentary. :D I think you’d love I Capture the Castle as well! Put it on a challenge list!

    Violet Lady, thanks for stopping by! :) I’m glad you loved Almost French too: it was just so good. I’ll have to check out that blog.

  4. May 26, 2008 1:56 pm

    Ah it’s been forever since I read “I Capture the Castle” but what a great book isn’t it? I should re-read it one of these days.
    I really like the added comments to your current reading on your sidebar. I don’t think it makes it look cluttered and it’s fun to see how you are getting on with those books!

  5. May 26, 2008 4:00 pm

    I don’t think the comments are too cluttery. I might skim over them, at times, but I like seeing your thoughts.

    You’ve done an excellent job of describing “I Capture the Castle”. I read it several years ago and . . . well, it did capture me. LOL I’ve got a copy of “Almost French”. You’ve practically got me drooling over the idea of reading it, now, but I always seem to have such a queue of books that I must read right away that I can see I’m going to have to pull this one off the shelf, stick it near the bed and cross my fingers I can find the time, soon. :)

  6. May 26, 2008 5:03 pm

    I like the sidebar commentary.

    I really liked both of these books. Almost French is such fun and so very informative. Capture the Castle is worth a reread, definitely.

  7. May 26, 2008 7:27 pm

    I like the new sidebar additions, so my vote is to keep them (says the person who loves annotated bibliographies).

    And, oh yes, that fur coat scene makes me giggle just thinking about it! ICTC is a book worth re-reading every five years or so, which means it’s about time I read it again. And now _Almost French_ is going in the pages of the TBR tome (if it isn’t already there. I think it may be). Sounds a bit like a cross between Elizabeth Gilbert and David Sedaris.

  8. May 26, 2008 7:28 pm

    I Capture the Castle has been on my shelves for friggin’ AGES. Thanks for the reminder and the push to pick it up. I know I’ll love it if I can sit down long enough to read it!

  9. May 27, 2008 3:26 am

    I don’t know who Sarah Turnbull is, but clueless doesn’t start to describe her. It must be the language barrier and attending IQ plunge she describes.

    No sisterhood in France? True, clothes are considered very personal, and you don’t share them anymore than you would share your husband or lover. But I have shared “wine, tears and jokes” with many female (and male) friends in France over the years. They have supported me through the toughest stretches of my life.

    And the advice to be rude to waiters because they “feel inferior.” Excuse me? Indeed I hear foreign tourists address a waiter as “garçon” (“boy.”) Try that, or a high-handed attitude, and see what kind of service you’ll get. The French place a high value politeness, and nobody likes to be treated as an inferior. I always address a French waiter as “Sir.” For one thing I don’t want spit in my food (something Ms. Turnbull must have unwittingly absorbed for years.) And sometimes a formal beginning will lead to a brief but pleasant and witty conversation on the topics of the day.

    The sad thing is that not only Ms. Turnbull spent 10 years in a foreign country without acquiring any understanding of her surroundings, but that her readers might take her statements at face value. Anyone planning a trip to France would be well advised to disregard her pronouncements.

  10. May 27, 2008 4:31 am

    I like the sidebar commentary! Gives the current reading list a bit more meaning to know what you’re thinking of them. Might have to copy you.

  11. May 27, 2008 6:43 am

    Did you know I Capture the Castle was made into a movie? I don’t know how you feel about movies from books, but I noticed it when I went to add it to my Amazon wishlist and thought you might be interested.

  12. May 27, 2008 8:28 am

    No, I don’t think your sidebar looks cluttered. It might if you had both pictures and words, though, so you made a good decision.
    I’ve been meaninig to read ICTC for eons. Maybe I’ll have to bookmooch it too.

  13. May 27, 2008 9:31 am

    Iliana, I’m glad it doesn’t look cluttered! And I Capture the Castle is definitely a reread book. :)

    Nancy, thanks! I’ve got the same problem of books I want to read all at once, lol.

    Tara, so neat that you’ve read both of these too!

    Emily, annotated bibs are the best, aren’t they?! Oh that fur coat scene!

    Andi, as soon as your reading ADD ends, I’m sure you’ll love it.

    Catherine, I’m very sorry that you found the passages offensive; I’ve only visited France on vacations, and then when I was young, so I didn’t have any comparison. If you don’t mind, I’ll post your comments on my blog so readers can get a French opinion. Also, do you have any books about France that you *would* recommend to non-French readers? Alternatives are always good!

    Debi, yes-do copy me. I’m always curious when I see people’s ‘currently reading’ lists.

    Somer, I did know that, because the edition I mooched is the movie tie-in one! Thanks for letting me know, though. Usually, I only see movies of books I either a) haven’t read or b) feel lukewarm about. Otherwise, I don’t like my imagination being invaded by the movie, if that makes sense.

    Chartroose, glad the simple text doesn’t look cluttered! You should bookmooch-it’s a lot of fun. :)

  14. Jessica permalink
    May 27, 2008 9:34 am

    I loved Capture the Castle. In fact, I loved it so much that I recommended it as a selection for my book club. Unfortunately, my book club did not seem to appreciate it. I’m glad I’m not alone in the loving of it. Based on your recommendation, I’m adding Almost French to my queue.
    (I like the commentary on your “currently reading.” It makes it a bit more personal.)

  15. May 27, 2008 9:41 am

    Jessica, your book club didn’t love Capture the Castle?! That’s tragic! FYI, your blog isn’t linking to your name.

  16. May 27, 2008 2:31 pm

    Eva, I haven’t read “Almost French” (don’t think I could) and can’t comment on it in general, but the passages you picked really got my attention. Ms. Turnbull’s advice is basically “just make sure to be rude to the natives, especially those you perceive as your social inferiors, they’ll LOVE it!”

    I would recommend the following English-language books about France:

    “French or Foe? Getting the Most Out of Visiting, Living and Working in France” by Polly Platt. The author specializes in cross-cultural advice for corporate executives. She knows her subject.

    And of course the best-selling “A Year In Provence.” Careful with the latter though: it gets the setting right, but it only applies to small-town southeastern France. Don’t try any of this stuff in Paris. Same difference as between West Virginia and NYC in the US.

    Hope this is helpful!

  17. May 27, 2008 7:46 pm

    I loved I Capture the Castle. and you’re making me want to reread it again!! Great review of it, wonderfully captured, Eva. And the ‘Almost French’ book sounds interesting – I wonder, with the other commentator’s (Catherine) differing opinion, if ‘Almost French’ was written from an American’s perspective in France. Being from Canada, there is a difference in how each of our nationalities are perceived abroad. And, while Quebec is not ‘France’, I have to say that I never encountered an unwillingness to share confidences or clothing among my French (Quebec) friends when i lived in Quebec City and Montreal. On the contrary, sharing everything was much more likely to happen (except boyfriends, of course!)

  18. May 27, 2008 7:56 pm

    Catherine, great-I’ll post this tomorrow!

    Susan, well the author was Australian, not American. But it was definitely from an Australian perspective! Even if her opinions about French people are completely wrong, I still think it was a valuable book, since most of the story talks more about her, and how living in another country changes her. Your last sentence made me giggle. :D

  19. May 28, 2008 6:21 am

    It sounds like I Capture the Castle is a better book than it was a movie :P I shall have to add it to my TBR List

  20. May 28, 2008 8:28 am

    I absolutely loved I Capture the Castle. I really need to reread it sometime soon!

  21. May 28, 2008 9:24 pm

    Rebecca, I didn’t see the movie, but I bet the book is better!

    Danielle, isn’t it frustrating how many books there are to reread?!

  22. Gordon permalink
    July 24, 2008 5:16 am

    I was also a little underwhelmed by Almost French. My problem was more that it was lightweight, but also that she was a bit too Alice in Wonderland about the French – probably upping the differences and the embarrassments to make a better story. You don’t have to be French to be irritated by her generalities. I too recommend the Polly Platt book recommended by Catherine Delors above if cultural traits are what you are interested in. On the other hand if you want accounts of experiences of an anglo settling into another country there are many as worthy as this but for some reason this got all the attention (best seller in Australia for months). A Year in Provence is well written and amusing if a little schmalzy for mine.


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