Almost French is intended to be a charming sketch of Paris through the eyes of a foreigner, told via the anecdotes of Sarah Turnbull, a young Australian woman whose husband is a Parisian lawyer. So far, so good. Who doesn’t like a good pithy anecdote, and who hasn’t been intrigued with the mysteries of French culture?
Turnbull came to Paris when she met her future husband vacationing in Bucharest, and after a few hours of conversation, he invited her to come stay in Paris. She accepted, and stayed for six years, and endured much hardship at the hands of the French, whom Turnbull pretends to see with the cool eye of an observer, and who were -- as the book relates over and over again -- really, really rude to the poor little Australian girl.
When she can stick to facts, the book isn’t half bad. When she can tell you exactly what one rude Parisian said to the other rude Parisian, or describe a traditional birthday party, or how French couples date and marry, the stories are good and entertaining. Unfortunately, she is incapable of telling a story that does not revolve around her own displeasure. While the readers are waiting for telling facts about French life, she fills pages describing how much better things are back in Sydney, how much she misses her “Mum and Dad”, and -- her favorite subject -- how every French custom makes her feel either offended, horrified, belittled, self-conscious, or vulnerable.
It’s obvious that Ms. Turnbull had a tough go of it in France and that she’s carrying a grudge. Take, for example, her poisonous analysis of Parisian women, who are known the world over for their self-confidence, and whose chilly reception of the author obviously still smarts. Her examination “reveals” that their legendary composure and aplomb is just a façade covering a “well of insecurities.” Why, then, are they so poised and well-dressed? It’s because they don’t feel comfortable with themselves as they are. Ah, of course. In similar fashion, Turnbull dismisses every French legend: from French cooking (actually not all that great and far too rich) to beautiful Paris (rat-infested and rundown).
Her writing style tries to conceal her negative opinions by saying things like Paris can be “a bit cramped” or that Parisians can be “a bit intimidating at first.” One wishes she would just, comme on dit, “have the balls” to say what she obviously feels.
Turnbull belongs to the adjectives and adverbs school of writing, where no noun stands without a descriptive propping it up. After three hundred pages of beefy men, winey sauce, dimpled sand, boozy kisses, etc., I wanted to mail this girl a red pen and Strunk and White’s advice about less being more.
As it is, I congratulate the French on having been so unwelcoming to Ms. Turnbull. I wouldn’t want her moving to my town, either.