The Secret Life of France

July 28, 2009By Nick HammondBooks
the secret life of france, by lucy wadham
Lucy Wadham comments on the quirks, frustrations and joys of living in Paris.

Lucy Wadham appropriately chooses to begin her engaging and engrossing book, The Secret Life of France, with a quotation from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part I: “Remember where we are,/In France, among a fickle wavering nation.” Her book is one in a line of interesting recent English-language books on the enigma that is France and its many differences from the Anglo-Saxon world (see, for example, Paris Update reviews of The Discovery of France by Graham Robb and Almost French by Sarah Turnbull).

Wadham, who was brought up in England but has lived in France all her adult life, is well-placed to comment on the quirks, frustrations and joys of living in Paris. While still a student at Oxford, she became pregnant by a French boyfriend whom she subsequently married and many years later divorced. Impressively, she returned to finish her degree when her son was just nine months old, discovering during her finals that she was pregnant with a daughter.

Much of The Secret Life of France manages to combine autobiographical detail with more general commentary on the French nation. Wadham’s writing is full of insight and wit. With subjects ranging from adultery to parking tickets, from female friendship to anti-Semitism, from bringing up babies to riots in the suburbs, she is never dull. She is also extraordinarily well-versed in French contemporary politics and history.

The only disappointment is the way she appears to be telling her personal story with great candor, yet chooses not to reveal certain aspects of her life that would have given a fuller picture of her time in France. Although she writes at length and with a certain amount of disapproval about the relaxed attitude of the French in general – and her husband in particular – toward extramarital affairs, we are never told whether the breakdown of her marriage was precipitated by her husband’s own indulgence. We are suddenly informed toward the end of the book that she left her husband for another man, but nothing else is mentioned about the new lover/husband. All we know is that she has had two more babies.

Having focused almost exclusively on Paris in the book, Wadham announces at the end that she now lives in the Cévennes mountains, a Huguenot stronghold, and no longer speaks French all the time, which makes one surmise that her new partner is English. Given the quasi-confessional narrative of much of the rest of the book, it would have been helpful for her to fill in the gaps, since no one’s privacy would have been invaded any more than it already has been.

The Secret Life of France is ideal reading material for those wishing to discover a France that is not to be found in any guidebook. Fickle and wavering the nation may be, but Lucy Wadham also shows it to be endlessly intriguing and delightful.


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