Lucy Wadham's The Secret Life of France will be published by Faber & Faber on 2 July, 2009. The author is well qualified to provide insights into France and the French as she is British but has been living there since the 1980s, having married a French man in a union that ended some twenty years later. But she stayed in France, enjoying the culture to which she had become aquainted and accustomed, although never losing her Anglo-Saxon roots and the ability to observe objectively. And how timely for this insight as President Sarkozy seeks a bigger profile on the world stage (think D-Day). A recent article in Prospect Magazine is titled "Sarko the Sex Dwarf", where Wadham, borrowing from her sister's "rich vocabulary of male sexual stereotypes" is not afraid afraid to be direct and hit a nail on the head. Indeed, The Secret Life of France is hitting quite a few nails on the head and its pages fire on many cylinders.
My interest in this book derived from the time I had the experience of working for a French company in the City. (The lack of qualitative noun is deliberate on my part; let's just say I spent much of the time bemused, flummoxed or both.) But I did learn a lot about French culture from French-women-abroad and it's great to see the female point of view in The Secret Life of France, because Wadham confirmed a few things I knew already, explained them in greater depth and then added more. Much more.
Wadham manages to cover many elements of French life in a book that is not too long because her writing style is very straight to the point. Did she manage to assimilate some of the Parisian rudeness she experienced and of which she writes, I wonder? We have philosophy, history, the impact of WWII on the next generation, a whole chapter on Sarkozy and his impact.
We also have the basics of everyday living in France and the practicalities involved, as well as the cultural impact. It is in this regard that I feel the book really shines, for Wadham provided me with more detail than the French ambassadors for the female way of life, and with humour not horror.
You see, after her husband, the French woman is married also to her gynaecologist. In my experience, a French woman cannot understand why we Brits have to go through a GP. Wadham, of course, experienced this first hand and not just as an opinion. She also relates a story of a friend who found her GP consultation interrupted by a phone call. The GP's secretary entered the room to ask if the patient's medication was responsible for her lack of orgasm over the last month. The GP "pondered the matter, for a moment" before deciding that was not the case and invited the patient to make an appointment, via his secretary. That's the cult of pleasure for you and the placing of women on a pedestal where being beautiful is the main goal.
Pursuing the cult of pleasure and beauty we also see the paradox when it comes to breast-feeding. To the authorities, breast-feeding was good, but when Wadham suggested she intended to take this to at least nine months she heard "…That's not necessary. They get all they need in the way of immunity in three." Her female friends were even more dispiriting on the subject, wanting to pursue beauty over function.
Another major difference in healthcare arrives in the form of the suppository. The French love them. Wadham became used to the idea and eventually embraced the fact that they made sense, allowing a more direct delivery of the painkiller or other into the system.
But the biggest paradox for me lies in the convention of marriage and what Wadham relays as the French "secret garden." That "secret garden" involves having affairs – and seeking pleasure, obviously - as long as the partner does not know about it. And as long as the "affairer" does not cross the line in the family environment. Ditto for the "affairee." When it comes to the goings-on in the salons of Paris, my eyes were opened. "On stalks" might be a better description here, but I am now too old to be shocked in that way. In her twenties, Wadham must have been shocked and indeed she was, struggling to retain her allegiance to her own values and better prepared the second time an affair was suggested…
She has learned from and can reflect through her children too. Her son, at three years of age, is still producing "tadpole men" in his drawings and his nursery school teacher suggests a visit to a psychiatrist. (This is the son who later successfully studies philosophy and can enlighten her further.) Her daughter Ella, brought up in France, observes that in Paris she no longer notices male attention, but in London, notices its absence. "It's rude to stare" says Wadham in defence, finally concluding in the relevant chapter of The Secret Life of France, "But for Ella of course, it was rude to be ignored."
This is a fantastic book in relaying the culture of France and not to be missed. It has as many layers as a mille-feuille and the pastry's depth and crunch. Wadham confirmed what I knew and went further, much further.
But I still don't understand how a newly installed from Paris, French colleague – female – could have joined the team and done NO WORK at all (back in the 90s). Is it because she was on the pleasure pedestal and thought "Because I am worth it?" Even the testosterone-fuelled male Brits in the team did not fail to cotton-on to her tactics. And she didn't ever knot an Hermès scarf around her neck like the rest of my colleagues, who did it so perfectly. Not that I ever managed it…