June 2, 2005

Almost French

Almost French
Sarah Turnbull


(June 2, 2005)

The Sydney bookstore had a display of 100 recommended books. The list was intelligent -- not pompous, not erudite, but thoughtful and companionable. I'd never heard of this book about an Australian woman who moves to Paris, and under the specious impression that it was a novel rather than a memoir, I bought it. (Books in Australia are expensive, by the way.)

Turnbull is smart and observant. She writes clean prose, and for much of the book manages to avoid cliché. Towards the end, we have a series of rote chapters on Peculiar French Affections -- couture, cuisine, poodles; these would have been better left out, but I'm inclined to assume that someone made Turnbull add them in the first place.

There's not enough, really, about her Australian-ness. That's the point, really: it's not just An American in Paris, because that's been done, and it's not just A Nice Girl In Paris, because that's been done too. It's this, specific Aussie in Paris that we're here to see, and sometimes she's so shy and modest that she leaves out key bits. She flies to Paris (from Bucharest where she's trying to be a Young Journalist) to meet a man she hardly knows, a man whom she is eventually going to marry. When do the sparks fly? She never gives us a hint! Somehow, they got from "you must visit me in Paris sometime" to sharing a bed and a terrier and a mortgage; we ought to have a clue.

Is this reticence Australian? Or just Turnbull? Or her editor? The cliche of falling in love in the streets of the 4e arrondissement might have scared her off, but the cliche of 'my first fashion show' didn't.

What we're missing here are the intimate, unexpected notes that teach us about personal and national character. We don't need interesting revalations from the boudoir, but if it's a book about being young and Australian in Paris, it might be nice to have more youth and tucker and a little less schtick about her adorable little dog.