My Life in France
by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme
2006 • 317 pages • Alfred A. Knopf
Oh, did I ever need Julia Child this past week.
For reasons I don’t particularly want to go into, my ever-fluctuating confidence in myself was quite shaken last week, so being able to escape into My Life in France was an absolute godsend in terms of both general stress relief and relieving my anxiety. (I don’t think I’ve ever read myself out of being nauseous from nerves before, so that was a novel experience.) I’ve never been a particularly ambitious woman, which, combined with being a queer introvert who doesn’t want children, sometimes makes me feel disconnected from the usual cultural milestones my culture tells me I should be hitting to qualify as a real person. So spending my commutes reading the words of a woman who found her true, passionate calling late in life, never had children, and pursued her passion in life simply because she enjoyed it? It was heartening on a spiritual level.
While I’ve never read Mastering the Art of French Cooking and have never been an active fan of Julia Child—I’m young enough that I only really know her from pop cultural osmosis and a viewing of Julie and Julia—I’ve long thought of her fondly, to the point that I can summon her voice in my ear despite not having heard her voice in years. (How odd, to put it that way, since she passed away in 2006. Memory is such a weird and wonderful thing.) Anastasia is actually the reason I hunkered down and put My Life in France on my reading list three years ago, and her recommendation was quite successful.
My Life in France is Child’s memoirs of her time in France, with lots of help from her nephew, Alex Prud’homme. I really appreciated that the book starts off with his foreword, explaining exactly how Prud’homme and Child collaborated on it. Especially because Child’s voice is so strong that it would have been very easy to downplay Prud’homme’s contributions. It’s no easy trick, midwifing a book in any form, and Prud’homme did a remarkable job.
Although, of course, it wouldn’t be such a remarkable book without such a remarkable woman at the heart of it. By the time she and her husband Paul arrived in Paris in 1948, she’d already served in the Office of Strategic Services (having proven too tall for the WACs or WAVES) and had been stationed around the world. And then she discovered French cooking, fell in love with it, and set about immersing herself in all its wonder and details. As captured by Prud’homme, Child’s voice is vigorous, spritely, and arch, whether describing French resistance to American productivity efforts (why run ourselves into the ground when we can have such pleasant lives? goes the thinking, and I suddenly felt very close to the Motherland) or the various social gatherings of Paris’ gourmet elite.
Obviously, foodies are going to love this—I had to copy down Child’s description of the perfect baguette because it made my mouth water. But it’s also fascinating to see details from a life lived through the mid-century that’s much more focused on fun, food, culture, and France. The Childs experience the moon landing via radio, for instance. And then there’s Child’s experience of Paris and, later, Marseilles—of their people, of their marketplaces, and of their beauty. I don’t like traveling, but I do like living places, and I found Child’s sketches of that particular mode of experiencing France fascinating.
Can we talk about how absolutely adorable Julia Child and her husband, Paul, were? Because they were so very. Child doesn’t spend a lot of time on how they met and why they fell in love, so, for the most part, My Life in France is a portrait of a married couple happily in love years into their marriage. I could barely take the adorability of Child using her height to help Paul pursue his love of photography while out and about in Paris, let alone the fact that while they quite sensibly decided to sleep apart, due to their very different sleeping styles, they still installed a double bed in one of their separate bedrooms so they could cuddle in the mornings.
I was also so struck by the community of women Child and her work were a part of. I don’t remember Julie and Julia particularly well, so I’m not sure if this element crops up or not, but Child worked alongside two other women for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and struck up wonderful friendships with other women. I grinned a little when a devoted pen friend of hers, Avis De Voto, sent Child a letter back extolling just how wonderful her height was. But it’s not just that we see Child having lovely, endearing friendships with other women; we also see her working at her relationship with Simone “Simca” Beck, her main collaborator. While they initially work together well, as the years pass, Simca becomes a little more difficult for Child to work with, and I really liked that Child discussed how challenging friendship and collaboration can be. (But despite their differences, they stayed in each other’s lives until Simca’s death.)
And because I couldn’t fit it into the review anywhere else—did you know that the editor of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Judith Jones, is the woman responsible for publishing Anne Frank’s diary in the United States? Holy crow.
I rented this book from the public library.