What do Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert have that you don’t? It’s not just that they’re thinner
Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. By Debra Ollivier. St. Martin’s / Griffin, 242 pp., $12.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
It’s been years since I served pot au feu and played Edith Piaf at Carnegie Hall at a dinner party, hoping to give the evening an alluring Gallic accent. But if I no longer believe that the French “know how to live” better than my Hungarian ancestors who also liked lard-bucket meals and summers in the country, I do think they are smarter than we are about a couple of things.
One of these is olives. When you go to a French home for dinner, the hosts do not try to fatten you up before the meal by serving you baby pigs-in-blankets or tortilla chips in bowls with the diameter of hubcaps. They typically serve olives. Just olives. I realized this years ago on a trip to Provence – Olive Central – and when I got back, I started serving olives, too. Just olives. And in a small way, it changed my life. Because I am functional noncook, the olives freed me permanently from an activity I don’t like and allowed me to focus one I do enjoy, which is conversation.
So I paid attention when a friend who has lived in France – and is also an Olive Person – said Entre Nous was full of similar ideas (although it allows that you can serve “small toasts with goat cheese, tomato and herbs” as a starter, too). She was right about this lively self-help guide by a Californian who married a Frenchman and lived in France for a decade. You have the essence of Entre Nous if you can extrapolate from olives to topics such as clothes, make-up, home furnishings, family life, and work. Example: You can wear white blouses, but never a white dress unless you’re a bride.
The most interesting – and, in my experience, accurate — chapter deals with the more complex traits that Debra Ollivier believes a typical French woman has, “some basic truths about how she sees herself and carries herself in the world.” One of these characteristics is self-possession (not the dreary “self-esteem”), a sureness about who she is that paradoxically allows her to show her vulnerability without with unraveling. A second trait – badly underestimated by American women – is discretion. A French woman, Ollivier says, does not wear her emotions “on her shirtsleeves.” She thinks before she speaks. And she may hold back for years things that an American might reveal within the first 15 minutes of meeting you, including details about her family. A Frenchman told Ollivier: “I’ve dated French women for months before I ever really knew who they were. After the first or second date, the American woman wants everything spelled out: ‘Are we dating? Are you my boyfriend or just a friend? Now that we’ve made love, are we a couple?’”
His comment points to a topic that gets relatively little attention in Entre Nous: sex. Ollivier deals broadly “sensuality.” But whether it’s because she was married while gathering material for this book or because of that natural French discretion, she says almost nothing about what an American might call The Act. A pity. Wouldn’t you love to know what a French woman would say to the British editors of Tatler, who instructed their readers recently to be sure to ask for a Taurus Brazilian bikini wax ,“a discreet triangle, not a landing strip”?
Best line: A French woman asked Ollivier: “What is a baby shower? Do you actually put the baby in the shower or do you use the tub?”
Worst line: “The lack of a workaholic culture, with all of its inherent dis-ease, takes the peculiarly Ango-Saxon strain out of the workplace, and frees the French girl to have a more sanely irreverent relationship to her work life. The results are apparent in a myriad of small but pervasive details …” No, they’re apparent in “myriad small but pervasive details.”
Recommended if … you’ve never understood the old joke that “the perfect country would be France without the French,” because you don’t see why anybody want a France without all those delightful French people.
Editor: Elizabeth Beier
Published: May 2004 with an excerpt posted on the St. Martin’s site.
Furthermore: Ollivier also wrote Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood and its sequel, Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race and Themselves.
Conflict alert: St. Martin’s/Griffin published the paperback edition of my first novel.
This is a Bastille Day re-post of a review that first appeared on Nov. 8, 2006.
Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comedy of manners The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999).
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.