While in Bucharest during a year of European travel, Australian journalist Sarah Turnbull meets a French lawyer named Frederic and decides to go visit him in Paris. A weeklong visit eventually turns into a long-term relationship, and in Almost French, Turnbull describes her first years in France and her difficulty adjusting to the French (really the Parisian) culture.
Turnbull’s story is an entertaining one, and she tells it with humor and affection. Although she does at times get frustrated with the formality of many French parties and the expectation that you must always look your best, she eventually comes to see why some might prefer this attitude over Australian casualness. She also learns to accept that although she might be willing to adopt some French customs, she’ll still always be an outsider. And by the end of the book, she’s okay with that.
As I was reading, I did question whether some of the things Turnbull took as French characteristics and expectations might actually just be idiosyncracies belonging to Frederic and his circle of friends. Do all French people find it impossible to be comfortable in a hotel room with bad art on the walls? Is aggression the only way to get good customer service? Do all French women see other women as competition? I’ve never been to France and I don’t think I even know any French people, so I’m speaking from a place of total ignorance, but I’m not convinced that everyone in France acts the way Turnbull describes. (Although if the French would rather have silence than small talk, as Turnbull discovers at a party she attends with Frederic early in her stay, then sign me up.)
Still, I did enjoy this book for its honesty and humor about what it’s like to make such a major change. Turnbull’s early difficulties with language and social gatherings filled with standoffish strangers made the difficulty especially acute. But some of the best anecdotes in the book weren’t so much about cultural clashes as they were about learning to compromise in a relationship, having new experiences, buying a new house and discovering that the neighborhood is a little less beautiful at night, and eating very good food. Overall, it’s a nice light read, not wildly funny or incredibly insightful, but pleasant and fun.