Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind" by Debra Ollivier

This book caught my eye in the author endorsements at the beginning of Sarah's Key. It made me wonder: What do French women know? Do they know something that I don't know? And so, here is a breakdown of each chapeter.

Chapter 1: Men. French women love men. A lot. And they don't really like women very much. There is no struggle between the sexes in France, just a mutual love (and, apparently, lots of it). As they are simultaneously feminists and feminine, French women live in le juste milieu.

Chapter 2: Mystery. French women are secretive. They value privacy and discretion. They don't tell everything they know. They have no problem with ambiguity and maybe even prefer it. They play their cards close to their vest, and sometimes it seems the more interested you are in getting a peek at their hand, the harder they try to hide it. The book didn't say this, but it sure sounded like what it boiled down to was a little bit of game playing, which definitely isn't for me. In general, however, French women abide by the idea that Less is More. Which I suppose would be moins est plus, although I have no idea whether this is a commonly used French idiom--I'm thinking it's not, since the author didn't apply it.

Chapter 3: Rules. The French don't like rules. French women are "aware of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure." They value the individual rights of people to behave as they like, and they figure they "might as well make the most of the moment instead of anxiously preparing for (or bracing against) the future." They don't challenge rules merely for the sake of rebellion, but they will scorn any rules that "get in the way of their sense of pleasure and personal freedom." On the other hand, the French are big fans of protocol or tradition involving etiquette. This is how they manage to have perfect, and rather rigid, manners in a social setting. But their indifference towards rule-following is where they get their joie de vivre.

Chapter 4: Perfection. The French woman knows perfection is not all it is cracked up to be. Perfection equals conforming to everyone else equals boring. Agreeing to disagree is much more agreeable than always being right (and thus perfect). Their idea of perfection differs from ours; being part of a perfect American couple might mean always being kind and in agreement with one another, whereas in a perfect French marriage, differing opinions are celebrated; disputes are not feared, and are even looked at as natural, helpful ways to relieve pressure in a relationship. Not only that, but their "more tolerant and elastic view of marriage" gives rise to a preference for cohabitation over marriage. French women realistically accept imperfections as natural, and even derive pleasure from them. They don't give a crap what others think about them; they know who they are and are happy with that, and they are not worried whether anyone else agrees with them. Vive la difference!

Chapter 5: Nature. The French are more accepting of what is natural--like aging, armpit hair, the fact that we humans are basically just animals, and stinky cheese. Freud was right in saying that any human emotion leads back to the sphere of sex. Rather than claiming "the devil made me do it," French women have no problem admitting they just couldn't resist, or, in other words, ça m'a pris.

Chapter 6: Art de Vivre. Neatly summed up in a quote from Jeanne Moreau saying, "I don't feel guilt. Whatever I wish to do, I do." The French set aside self-improvement and ambition in favor of enjoying life, which is better done when keeping it simple (though not in the sense of organization or efficiency). Feeling anxiety over concepts like "getting ahead" or "staying ahead" are foreign to the French.

Chapter 7: Body. A French woman know how to feel bien dans sa peau. French children "grow up with the realities of the body" and thus "are primed to be less childlike and more matter-of-fact about sexuality as adults." The French do not "conform to a single standard of beauty," and "personal iconoclasm" is celebrated; however, if there is one thing they do conform to, it is the pressure to Not Get Fat. Their secret is rigid self-control. They certainly do not forego all indulgence, but neither do they indulge themselves constantly. It also "helps that French culture is not a snack culture."

Why was there no chapter on sex? I probably shouldn't be surprised, as apparently the French don't do "tips" or "how-tos," but I was hoping I would pick up some fun and nasty ideas I could use in my happy marriage. I guess the reason there wasn't a chapter on sex is because their attitudes towards it were sprinkled throughout the book (and perhaps partly because of that innate discretion mentioned in Chapter 2). In a nutshell, French women enjoy sex (just like every other aspect of their lives), especially when it is frequent and passionate.

I found it interesting to note that the author took a lot of examples from literature and film. I never assumed movies were that realistic, but perhaps she used good examples of art imitating life. I don't know, as I'd never even heard of many of the movies she mentioned. There were two, though, that I've even watched before!

So to wrap up the entire book in one sentence, I would have to say that the French enjoy life with the abandon of hedonists and moral relativists, steeped in existentialism with the attitude that Que sera, sera. It was definitely a fun and interesting glimpse at the women of an alluring and intriguing culture, though I don't think I gleaned much from it that I can use in my own life. I'm too American, and too happy about that fact, although I could do better about living in the moment. I enjoy the heck out of my life, but I am not always as fully present in the present as it appears the French are. And, now that I think about it, I know a few people who could use a good dose of that mysterious French reticence and close their mouths every now and then.

I did have to wonder what the majority of French women would think of this book. I mean, does it hit the nail on the head for most of them? Does it describe only a minority? Or is it way off the mark? I know one thing about the type of French woman who is portrayed in this book, though; they wouldn't give a crap about what I thought of it.


Mademoiselle said...

Well, I know this post dates back from ages ago, but as a French woman, I guess I agree with Chapter 4. To disagree with the other chapters. I love my french man, not men in general, just the one man I love. I haven't read the book, but from the sum up you provide, I think the French woman that's pictured is la Parisienne rather than French women in general. I have female friends, am not particularly secretive, and I like rules. I worry about my future, and I guess other French women would too (and French in general). We're amongst the most depressed nation, because we work less, tend to have more time to worry about meaningless thing and as such, have a high consumption of medicines and antidepressant. So we're not immune to anxiety. I guess the author had a biased view and was circulating among the wealthier French women, the one who won't have much to worry about... Makes me think about another book that dealt with French parenting being much better (overrated, it isn't true that French toddlers/kids don't cry and aren't rude) than American parenting.

As for French's sex life, who enjoys infrequent and passionless sex life? :)

If there's anything I could say to describe French women, I'd say we're on the conservative side, none would wear short shorts/hot pants even when Paris is experiencing a heatwave just because you'd expose yourself to comments you do not want to hear. So when you see a woman wearing something short, you can guess she's from a foreign country/a tourist.

We'd wear brown or black whatever the fashion is, because most of us like not to differentiate too much and stand out of the crowd. I guess this is what creates that sense of timeless fashion (?)

French Women do not smile (Well, French do not smile much in general I'd say). This might be why they're perceived as "secretive".

Anyways, I think your blog is great, and I came to it by looking for reviews on Bill Bryson's Notes from a big country (which I'm currently reading and finding enjoyable so far, the fact he could upset American readers never really occurred to me for he's American himself and has always been self-deprecating in most of what I read, but I'll try and pay attention)

Cheers !!

Kathy said...

I'm glad you like my blog! And it was great to hear your take on What French Women Know. I'm willing to bet you're right, and this book is based on la parisienne riche.