Up close and personal with the “culture change” genre.

Our House is Not in Paris

I am reading a biography that I really looked forward to starting, after reading a couple of very excited reviews. The book is “Our House is Not in Paris” by Australian, Susan Cutsforth. It follows the tale of Susan and her husband buying a “unique fixer-upper” in the French countryside, while keeping their day jobs in Australia. Susan is a teacher librarian so it added an extra dimension for me, being a TL myself.

Sadly, I have been very disappointed by the book. 77 pages in and I am quite certain that the rapturous reviews can only have been supplied by close friends of the author. It is written with beautiful language, and a smattering of French words in the hope of giving it some French essence, but it is filled with repetition and little story. This is frustrating, I mean just 77 pages and I have lost count of the number of times I as the reader have been informed of the French ritual of a two hour lunch, how most French people are hostile to strangers, but everyone and their dog opened their very sophisticated houses to them, and how she ran around using mime to replace her knowledge of French. What passes for chapters are down to a page and a half of what I would guesstimate as a size 14 font style, and that is irritating the teacher within me. I feel that the short chapters are often repeating what we were told only a chapter page and a half ago, also. The book is 256 pages long so maybe my opinion will improve…

I adore this genre of biography, the “culture change” as I title it, slightly different to the sea change, or the tree change that Mr FD and I have embarked upon, alas not in France, but in our dear Australia. My disappointment and frustration with this particular example led me to lying wide awake last night and analysing the genre of the “culture change” biography, or memoir.

1.The protagonist, usually a woman, buys a rundown house/villa/farm on a whim in a foreign country/or the protagonist returns from a foreign country to buy said house/villa/farm in their homeland.

2. Having too much money and no common sense they do not get a builder’s inspection, even after being told the house stood abandoned for 75 years, and so shortly afterwards discover that they have major structural problems on their hands. Sacre bleu!

3. The real estate agent, who fobbed the ruin on them in the first place, stays in close contact, offering “help” by pointing the way to local tradespeople to assist in resurrecting the ruin. The cynic within of course suspects that a. the agent will be receiving a kick back from the tradespeople, or they are family; and b. they hang on just in case the crazy newbie puts it back on the market and they can get another round of commission selling it again. The newbie declares them wonderful and they get a free plug.

4. Lo and behold, a friendly older couple, though sometimes just an older man, takes the floundering newbie under their/his wing and starts to sort out all manner of problems from plumbing to goats in the garden for the newbie who has just spent an entire chapter informing the reader of all the reasons why they had decided to put it all down to “it was a good idea at the time” and sell the place to return to sanity.

5. This couple, or person, then become a conduit to local antique stores where everything is more than the budget which we are repeatedly told is miniscule, but the proprietor shows the newbie, ( who can’t speak the local language except to ask for wine, and say “yummy” when they are given local delicacies at cafes and restaurants in hidden alleys that only “real” locals frequent, thus signifying that the newbie is accepted by all and sundry), their secret antique horde which they allow newbie to buy at prices way below what they would have paid in the swanky antique stores they frequented “back home”. Thus explaining how farm machinery ends up decorating the walls of their “villa”

6. The newbie either hires, borrows or buys a car with the same sound common sense that they used to purchase their ruin, and then hurtles around narrow mountain roads, barely staying on the road while goats and shepherds head for the cliff edge. Oh what a lark! A car means visits to more antique stores, cheese shops, and vine yards, and a visit or two to exciting arty types who also bought ruins but had the sense to hire an architect and decorator to make it “just darling” for them.

7. About this time, when life is all sunny and they have just got the roof off the house, the first cold snap arrives so that newbie wakes under a layer of frost on her bed, and the antique water heater that she has named Horrid Horace, and needs a kick and a whack to start each day, packs it in. No water, no heat! A day and a half of freezing and wearing three layers follows before one of her new sophisticated friends (did I mention that all locals are given pseudonyms, while the arty, cultured rich and famous that apparently live on every rue or above narrow picturesque alley are named in full, often and with full Debretts’ bio and title? Well, they are).

8. The tradesmen either go slow until they are aware she is about to go bankrupt then finish the house overnight, or down tools until the spring when they return, nail in a coat hook and voilà the house is completed just as her best friend from that oh so now strange previous life arrives to stand in awe at polished wooden floors and the obligatory long wooden trestle kitchen table. Oh the fun!

9. This friend, who just happens to be an editor, suggests the newbie write a book of her trials and tribulations, as well as of the budding romance with a handsome local man who just happens to be either an up and coming artist, writer, or entrepreneur who has banked his millions and now spurns the plebs to bake bread while trading sweet almond oil futures.

10. This leads us to book 2; which will include details of how crazy life was during her book tour for book 1 and how she fell into her rustic pallet bed with its French linens exhausted at the end of a long flight from New York after an appearance on Good Morning America.

And I am a sucker for book 2 every time.

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11 thoughts on “Up close and personal with the “culture change” genre.

  1. Maybe you’d like Monica Trapaga’s book A bite of the big apple – about her buying an apartment in New York but with a strong food emphasis. It’s a nice book, she’s very creative.

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  2. It sounds like FD ought to write a similar book of her own! I had to chuckle at your numbering the tropes in these sort of memoirs. They are amusing, but after a bit, I have to slap my forehead and say, ‘How clueless can a grown person be?’ That ‘Innocents Abroad’ stuff can get old, especially if the writer reveals her/himself as being truly stupid as the narrative progresses.

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    • I often end up throwing the book aside (which is one reason to have paper and not ebook, the throwing thing) as they frustrate me with their stupidity. I always end up hoping that it is exaggerated for the “every man” element!

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  3. I’d probably end up binning the genre, let alone the book and taking your big stick out to beat the authors into realising they should never have tried being novelists. Life, as they say, is too short.

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    • It is the genre of the rich upper class white people. They write the books to buy more Gucci tiles for the entrance hall (let’s not debate whether Gucci make tiles or not, I am sure in some parallel universe they do!)

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  4. Not to sound snobby, but as a librarian and a teacher, sharing LITERATURE with the young… is the purpose of this literacy to read serious books as an adult? I struggle with this myself. My popcorn reading is cozy murder mysteries. Counting the potential remaining days in my reading life I attempt serious books from time to time out of guilt. I do want to know what you think.

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    • My mantra is that I don’t care what I or anyone reads, as long as they read and they enjoy it. I think this idea of the “canon of literature” is exactly why so many people are turned off reading. After I finished my bachelors degree in literature I couldn’t face reading fiction for years afterwards! I am quite happy for my students to read graphic novels, comics, magazines, anything – I just want them to read!

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