Or was it? This book is going to end up costing me a lot of money because it has made me decide that I must be more of a French woman – but not a Parisian. We soon discovered that outside Paris, no-one likes Parisians!
This is a book obviously aimed at a female readership. It has the subtitle ‘Unlock your inner French woman’ in case you weren’t sure. I enjoyed it very much. I’m not a particularly style-conscious sort of person – at least, not yet! – and I was worried this might not be my kind of book. But the author has a very readable style and is always interesting. And it is fascinating to see how the other half lives. Helena interviews models, politicians, businesswoman as well as stylish friends to find out what makes them tick.
The first chapter investigates whether French women are innately elegant, or just arrogant. Do we think they’re stylish because they think they’re stylish, or because they really are? Sadly, it does seem that you can put a French woman and an English woman in the same outfit, and the French woman will just look better. We Brits have some work to do to become chic.
Exercise and healthy lifestyles come under scrutiny next. We learn that French women don’t really do exercising, but they like to be active which helps keep them in shape. Sex is one of these activities. The author talks to a woman who recommends having a lover rather than gym membership. It’s cheaper, just as effective and much more fun.
French women have a secret weapon – good quality underwear. M&S knickers and the first bra you grab in our undies drawer in the morning just don’t cut it. Underwear needs to be matching, feminine and as expensive as you can manage. Nothing less will do. It’s the basis for being stylish. If you wear something beautiful next to your skin, you won’t want to cover it up with something unworthy – and too British.
Cosmetic surgery and cosmetics are the subject matter of the next two chapters. And the latter is by far the more interesting. France has more cosmetic companies than any other country and French women spend a lot of money on beauty products. In Paris and other cities, it’s reckoned that they invest up to 10% of their salary in these items. The author admits her shelves have filled up with pots of cream since she moved to France. I can see the same thing happening to me. Like the author I shall try out some of the potions that French women can’t live without – the body sculpting creams, the foot softeners, the boob firmer-uppers, the two lipsticks. (But not the lover. Chris wouldn’t like it.) However, maybe some Chanel.
A look at Coco Chanel, La Reine du Beige, and haute couture make for a fascinating and sharp-intake-of-breath causing chapter. A bespoke Chanel suit would set you back around 15,000 pounds sterling. Haute couture is on the way out but it will hang on in France for a while yet. It’s just so French.
The chapter ‘Beyond One’s Control’ came as quite a surprise to me. This discusses how there isn’t really a girls-together culture in France. There’s rivalry rather than solidarity. Is this true? My daughter gets on well with French girls at lycée, although the two girls she shares a dorm with are British and South African anglophones. The author makes a valid point in discussing friendships between people of different nationalities. No matter how close you might be, she claims, there is always something missing when you don’t share the same culture and same language. That is very true. I have some nice friends but we don’t really understand each other’s inner workings and probably never will.
Laziness, families and intellectualism come under scrutiny next. French women are notoriously lazy, according to the author, who cites the example of Corinne Maier, who works part-time for the EDF. Maier wrote a book in which she exhorted her fellow workers to ‘work as little as possible and spend time cultivating your personal network so you’re untouchable when the next round of restructuring comes’. The French work a lot less than other nationalities, something they’re very proud of! At least French families are to be admired with their closeness and pro-childness. This can lead to overprotectiveness though. I’ve noticed how children are dreadfully overdressed most of the time, as does the author. They must boil their way through childhood, poor things.
French intellectualism seems to be linked to the fact that kids have to study philosophy at lycée. They take it up in Terminale, their last year. Benj does eight hours of it a week. He’s coming round to seeing that is actually rather interesting and has some practical applications. French people like to think about things and appear serious and studious. Knowing about Sartre and Descartes seems to help that along.
I slightly lost interest in the last two chapters. One was about the French women not getting fat thing that I’ve discussed in other book reviews, and which palpably no longer holds true. At the school Easter Egg hunt the other week, there were a lot of hefty mums. I’m the oldest of all of them by a good few years but in much better shape. And I’m not French. Touché! The last chapter is about the art of seduction and how important this is to French women. It’s a result of being independent and having the freedom that French culture gives them. ‘Marrying and then misbehaving is seen as being free.’ Quite how rife seduction is I’m not sure. Perhaps it is going on here in deepest Creuse all around me and I’m just not aware of it. However, I think I prefer to take this last chapter with a pinch of sel.
All in all, though, a riveting read and one which may inspire you, like me, to be slightly more French.
Finally, in case you think I’m not being very supportive of my fellow writers by opting for cheap secondhand copies to review, well, I’m a reuser and always have been. I’m also the youngest of three so grew up with third-hand bikes, welly boots, duffle coats, toys, books and other non-sex-specific items, and second-hand girly stuff, inherited from my sister. I prefer pre-used things. It’s the oldest siblings and only children who are accustomed to new things who will hopefully go out and buy brand new copies of the books I review! And I have been supportive when I could be. I attended a lot of multi-author functions in Ireland. Every time, I bought a copy of a book by each of the writers I was due to be appearing alongside in advance, if I didn’t already have one (and even if I wasn’t that impressed with what they wrote!) and got them to sign it for my kids. Did anyone ever return the gesture? I can’t recall it happening. But that’s water under the bridge …