Mike Gershman was in the final stages of lung cancer before the doctor discovered he was sick. Every night after that, his wife of 25 years lay in his arms and sobbed, "What will I do without you?"
"You will go to Paris," he said.
Six weeks after the official diagnosis, he was dead.
In the officially-sanctioned grief book, the widow mopes in her house, wrapping herself in her husband's old shirts and becoming a pariah among friends and family. She hits bottom, crawls to some officially-approved house of redemption, and there, in the glow of the love of the Lord, starts the slog back toward life --- which includes, along the way, the writing of an officially-sanctioned grief book and the appearance of a Good Man (though never, of course, as good as her husband).
This is not that book, for the simple reason that Suzy Gershman is not that woman. She grieves for her husband, alright, but she's no moper. Indeed, rarely have I encountered a woman with such an optimistic take on life. She likes people, and people like her right back. She likes going out --- she's the author of the Born to Shop guides --- and the folks she meets in shops and cafes quickly fall under her spell.
So 52-year-old Suzy Gershman, to the surprise of her college-age son and a good many of her neighbors, walked out of her cozy, memory-filled house in Westport, Connecticut, and moved to Paris. (What would have surprised friends and family more: "I paid for the funeral with a credit card. I wanted the miles.")
And once she got to Paris, she had adventures with a capital A. Renting an apartment is a chore at best in France; the rules are crazy, the landlords often sadistic. Suzy's spared nothing; good cheer carries her through. Ditto the buying of a bed --- you have no idea how complex a transaction that is --- and the shock of buying standard kitchen items at three times the American price.
But Paris, she discovers, is a place where she can thrive. It's not just the flower-markets and cafes, it's the culture. A cheery news story reminds her that the French didn't have more sex per week, but that they have more sex later in their lives. Her conclusion: "Maybe every American woman over fifty should move to France."
Prose this breezy grabs your hand and just pulls you along. You race with Suzy through the first year of her new life as "The Runaway Widow" tosses off useful advice for Paris visitors and the bereaved with equal insouciance. Naturally, because her charm is so infectious, she meets a man whose opening salvo is "You are too beautiful to walk past me. I say a prayer you will stop to talk to me."
Widows don't have sex? That's only in the officially-sanctioned books. Suzy Gershman not only goes to bed with this man --- this married man, in fact --- she describes their frolics in what might be called lurid detail. Women of a certain age will cheer her, even as they want to tell her what she already knows: He's wrong for her.
"Life handed me a lemon," she writes, near the very happy ending. "Somehow I had made citron pressè …and it was sweet." How sweet? This book makes you want to go to Paris immediately. And, once you get there, it makes you think you must call Suzy, for in just 270 pages, she has become an old and dear friend.
Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on January 15, 2004
C'est La Vie