In the mid-1990s, Australian journalist Sarah Turnbull met a French attorney named Frédéric in Bucharest and followed him back to Paris, where they lived together and eventually married. End of a familiar story, right? Wrong. Turnbull, a born reporter, has given her book an apt subtitle: not "Life and a New Love in Paris," but "Love and a New Life in Paris." For, as Turnbull accurately observes, in her case it's the love that brings her to a new life and not vice versa.
Turnbull provides brief glimpses into how love grew between her and "Fred," including descriptions of a huge mirror from which he patiently scraped paint with his thumbnail; for the most part he remains an opaque figure. There is no doubt whatsoever that this idiosyncratic pair are in genuine swing-from-the-gilt mirror love --- after all, she does move to another country for him and he makes enormous and touching attempts to introduce her to his family and his culture --- but Turnbull seems to have made a conscious decision to draw a veil over their love life, both emotional and physical. Her intention is not to describe a romance but to detail her own transformations --- from single woman to spouse, and from Aussie to "almost French."
The "almost" modifying "French" includes a large amount of agonizing awkwardness. The near-universal tourist experience of Parisian rudeness is magnified hundreds of times for someone like Turnbull who chooses to stay on past the usual week or two. "A week might not be long enough," muses the author after her first dinner in Fred's apartment, but she still maintains enough natural savoir-faire to take a breather and travel for several months. After that however, "I return to Paris. The way I see it, there is really no alternative … if I don't go to France, I might regret it forever."
What makes Turnbull's recounting of her Parisian existence eminently readable is that there is so much she might regret by actually staying. She freely admits that when she returned to Paris and Fred's apartment, she had no friends or family, little language ability, and few job prospects. Her initial setbacks (stacks of rejection letters from editors, dinner party embarrassments, and difficulty in communicating with her new love) lead Turnbull to feeling "confused, guilty even, that I should feel unhappy in a place that looks like paradise."
Being unhappy away from familiar things is an age-old theme for females who follow their hearts to new lands --- but while the theme is ancient, Turnbull isn't. She is a thoroughly modern woman whose frustrations spur her on to find solutions. Before long she has entered a prestigious journalism program, encouraged Fred to buy a new apartment in the Montorgueil district, and actually learned to tolerate the suffocatingly hidebound atmosphere of Fred's provincial family seat at Baincthun.
Unlike Adam Gopnik's PARIS TO THE MOON, in which author, wife and child are all expatriates who will return home at some point (however reluctantly), ALMOST FRENCH is a book that clearly presages a sequel (perhaps WHOLLY FRENCH) --- or does it? One of the freshest things about Turnbull's great adventure is that, while she wholeheartedly throws herself into loving and living in a different country, she never abandons the self she created for the nearly thirty years before coming to France.
In the last chapter, after their marriage, Turnbull reflects on the adventure that is just beginning. While it is clear that Sarah and Fred have many adventures to come, it is equally clear that she may never be completely French. Vive la différence!
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on August 3, 2004
Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris