That was the question that faced Lucy Lemoine (nee Wadham unless that is just a nom de guerre) when she ended her 20-year marriage to a Frenchman. She had to decide whether it was nobler in the mind to suffer the talk and habits of outrageous Frenchmen or to pull up stumps and cross the sea to England, and maybe find that better. She had actually once gone along to apply for French citizenship, and had been so appalled by the rudeness of the civil servant she encountered that she changed her mind on the spot. However when it came to the later decision she elected to stay in France after all, although significantly not in Paris.
Myself, I have been to France ten or eleven times, including my honeymoon in Corsica, but reading this book makes me think I probably know the place better from television and maybe a few films than from my stays there. Nothing Lucy Wadham says about France or the French surprises me, and although my knowledge of it all seems somehow second-hand I think I can understand to a fair extent what she is talking about. She starts her narration where she ought to start it as a young woman, with the relations between the sexes, partly but not mainly her own experiences. I am not going to précis her findings: I shall say only that she has a very interesting slant not only on the work/life balance of the French but on the balance between their commitment to marriage, their adherence or otherwise to Catholic moral teaching, and their attitude to sexual relations generally. A lot of the interest of this part of the book may be unintentional, by giving us insights into her own mental and emotional processes. She is obviously very sharp and analytical, for instance, but if the word `love' occurs at all in this context I think I must have missed it.
One very interesting, and for me quite persuasive, insight is her opinion that the French are hidebound in their inherited traditions from 1789 and also in a self-deceiving mythology about themselves. This point the author illustrates from so many different angles that I can't help being drawn into her mindset. She sees herself as freethinking and independent-minded, and I would call that realistic on the evidence here and not a pose or auto-suggestion. Being of this way of thinking clearly creates communication barriers with the French, and Lucy Wadham does not quite convict the French national mindset of outright escapism, but she seems to me to come very near to it.
The book covers a wide spectrum of cultural and political issues, and with one exception I found myself keenly interested in Lucy Wadham's take on them. The exception occurs near the end, and that may have something to do with the matter, say a deadline to meet that did not help her concentration and focus. I really thought that the chatter about M Sarkozy as something called a `sexual dwarf' was a right load of rubbish, but perhaps I ought to reread the passage in due course. One way or another it is not significant enough to influence the rating I am prepared to give this thoroughly intelligent, fair-minded, readable and enjoyable volume. What really impresses me is that not only does the book address so many difficult and contentious topics with gusto and insight, it even provides, on page 64, nothing less than `the key to the French identity'. Short of identifying The Meaning of Life, I think this is as lofty and ambitious a generalisation as I have encountered in many years.
To me a theme of this kind, when attacked with so much mental grip and expressed with such lucidity, is far more interesting and involving than many a novel. I gather the author is a novelist, although this is the first time I have encountered her work. On this showing it will not be the last time.