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May 9, 2012

The Vicious Circle reads My Life in France by Julia Child

On Monday night, we assembled in Brockton Village for some French fare– quiche, excellent wine, truffles, profiteroles, and the cake from Bringing Up Bebe. Our book was Julia Child’s My Life in France, which was our first foray into autobiography, and which everybody liked, which was very unusual. And even more unusual– even though everybody liked it, we had plenty to talk about.

In general, we found the book delightful. There was speculation as to the nature of Julia and Paul’s romance, as to the lipstick on his belly-button. It was supposed that they’d had “a delicious sex life”, though we wondered how to rectify that with rumours that both were actually gay. And here is the thing with biography, especially auto– how fast we stop thinking about the book itself and instead become intent on the people within it.

But that’s kind of the point– we were fascinated by Child’s restraint, her control, by what is held back in her autobiography and what is revealed. How she dares to say that she hadn’t cared for her father, that she was glad when he died. Later on, she notes that she’s not a sentimental person, and we note that this is an understatement. Like Edith Piaf, who seems to be the one person Julia Child didn’t attend dinner parties with during her years in Paris (although she was Matron of Honour at Bumby Hemingway’s wedding to Puck Whitlock), Child regretted nothing, and this is a character trait that is as admirable as it is troubling and intriguing. (Also, none of us were fully convinced by it. We were sure that beneath the narrative, there was so much more going on.)

We were fascinated that the story begins when she is older, in her late ’30s, a late bloomer– what a different story this would have been had Julia Child not gone to Paris in her prime. We wonder what she was doing in the years before her story starts– yes, there was the war, but otherwise, apparently, she was up to not much. And once again, we speculate that something is being obscured. We wonder at her complete lack of emotional trauma. Though we note that she does get her digs in– she just lets her husband do the dirty work, and here we’re talking about the terrible things she lets through that he says about Simca. Her restraint is certainly not entire.

We talked about Saving Rome, a book we read last Fall, which divided us in its depiction of expatriate life. At one point, Child runs into an old friend in Paris who is as fed up with the expat thing as Megan Williams’ character had been, and Child confesses herself to be baffled by this response to Parisian life. And it’s true that Child’s take on Paris is what some of felt was missing from Williams’ book, the enthusiasm, willingness to learn and explore. But then we concede that Julia Child was a very unusual person, and the Saving Rome characters are probably more the norm.

We note that Child’s sense of adventure was never stymied, that she viewed challenge as an opportunity. That after two decades of drifting that she was so glad to find her place in the world, her path in life. That she had an unusual amount of freedom accorded by inherited wealth, but also by her extraordinary marriage. That in some many ways, her husband was her wife, and that she never fulfilled for him the role of the diplomatic wife, but this never seemed to bother either of them.

Something about the narrative grated though, however much it was delightful. That there was no depth, no variance in tone. Can one person be so perpetually buoyant? There is such distance between writer and reader and we wonder where it comes from– is it her disposition? The co-author showing his hand? We note the peculiar structure of the book itself, that it does not reach for depths. It is to be a book about “things I loved in my life.” It is to document a world that is almost gone, in terms of her own life and the food culture she came to know in France. We talked about the resources available to her in reconstructing her history– her husband’s extraordinary letters home to his brother, and also his photographs. Anyway, this is a book about vignettes. They’re meant to be sketchy. But the distance still means that we find them “sketchy” in another sense.

Anyway, she wasn’t a memoirist, but a cookbook writer. Though there was nothing lacking in her narrative here, or at least unintentionally. She knew what she doing, but why did she do it this way? We remark upon the fact that Julia Child was a very strange woman, 6″2, and that voice. This leads to more talk of her sex life again. We note that she seemed more upset at leaving her house in France than at putting her husband in a home. She writes of certain individuals who “weren’t intellectuals.” We wonder where she gets off with these judgments, and then realize that she didn’t consider her own self an intellectual either, and it is one of the instances where she is self-critical. She resents her inability to hold her own in political discussions, and it’s an ongoing project in her life to do this better.

We talk about the book’s cover– the schlocky picture on the front which makes more sense when you realize that Paul and Julia made such pictures for their Valentines cards every year. And some of us have the movie tie-in version, which is less appealing, and Meryl Streep all over the place. We talk about the movie, and how it was surprisingly charming, and we have strong opinions about Julie Powell. Though she can write, it is admitted. And then talk turns to lesser bloggers-turned-writers.

And before the talk of other things totally takes over, we remark upon how much Julia Child has to say about the publishing industry, about how much it as been falling apart in the same old ways for years and years and years. That she also had issues with and ideas about self-promotion, which is interesting because this self-promotion is meant to be a fairly modern phenomenon. Her editor Judith Jones was behind the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank in America, and we’re bothered that in Child’s book, Anne Frank’s name is misspelled without an “e”. It’s the only typo in the book that we could see, but a glaring one. And in other mistakes, we’re thinking about how the first version of her book advised baking French bread on a slab of asbestos tile, but it was righted in the end. We loved Child’s approach to life– never stop learning and don’t apologize.

3 thoughts on “The Vicious Circle reads My Life in France by Julia Child”

  1. Sandra says:

    Lovely book review and book CLUB review as usual.

    On Child’s early career years – I thought she was a spy for the OSS during WWII. At least I recall reading about that in a few places and in my “spy” class at UofT.

    I wonder how much of her approach/what she revealed and hid is informed by the times when she wrote and published this book. I wonder if it would be a much different book were she able to write it for today’s readers.

  2. Zsuzsi says:

    oooo, you must read As Always: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis deVoto! You will love it.

    And fall in love with her friend Avis and Avis’ husband, too.

  3. Kate says:

    PK got me a copy of Jennet Conant’s “A Covert Affair,” which is a biography of Julia and Paul Child before France (and during and after France as well, especially when Paul Child gets caught up in McCarthy-era spy hunts). It focuses on her years in the Office of Strategic Services in East Asia in WWII, when she and Paul were part of a team that was trying to set up an intelligence network in Asia.
    Sadly, Conant is not nearly as brilliant a chronicler of a life as Julia (very few are), so I haven’t read more than half way through the book, but it does give you a good idea of all the currents beneath Julia’s autobiography. It’s heartwarming to know that she and Paul were romantic and adventurous and brave in secret ways she doesn’t mention in “My Life in France,” and I admire her all the more for being so stoic about possibly the sexiest part of her life.

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