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The French Art of Living Well: Finding Joie de Vivre in the Everyday World, by Cathy Yandell

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is not the sort of book I generally read, but I thought I’d give it a go. The main result of this, unfortunately, was to renew my resolve not to read this sort of book. You know the sub-genre, it’s I Am Very Enthusiastic About This Country But Haven’t Focused Enough to Write Something Else About It (and Am Not Interesting Enough Personally to Write a Memoir). They’re out there about China, Denmark, loads of places. There were already several about France, but there seems to be someone eager to put out another.

As is often the case with this subgenre, the author makes assertions about French culture and its comparisons to the rest of the world that can be sorted into the categories of 1) trivial; 2) trite; 3) not unique to France; 4) not even correct. While they’re all eye-rolling, this last category is an abundant one, as Yandell chooses to gloss over major political issues of our time (and, importantly, actual French people’s time) with vague references to joie de vivre, the title concept she may well have chosen for her ability to warp it into basically anything she likes including the opposite of joy or zestfulness.

It would be bad enough to compare 19th century French novels to a single American Netflix series and draw one’s conclusions about all of the two cultures thereby, but it’s far worse when the level of depth of interpretation of those novels is lower than I’d expect from my godchild’s sophomore high school English class. She teaches French literature! Surely she knows there’s more to both French literature and the entire rest of world literature than she’s written here! What is she even doing? And how did she come up with so many bizarre assertions on so many topics?

Example: “In most of the world, ‘sixth sense’ refers to proprioception, or sensation of where our bodies are in space–but I’m convinced that, in France, the sixth sense is the intellect.” Jesus wept. What even is this. First of all, when people they have a sixth sense about something in English, they don’t mean bloody proprioception; second, different cultures identify different things as senses at all, so their numbering–and what’s a neglected outlier–will be different; third, the difference between a sense and the intellect is a major topic in philosophy, including by some fairly notable French authors you could read oh my God what.

It is all like this, friends. It is all like this. Just random stuff pulled out of an orifice and strung together with a “whee” that does extremely little to actually illuminate joie de vivre. Oh, Lord, saying “illuminate” reminded me of how incoherent her musings on Frenchness and light were. Why, why, why. I read this so you don’t have to.

PS It is, at least, short.

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