The Sweet Life in Paris
Because my online life is constantly out of synch with my real life—reading or otherwise—I decided to read The Sweet Life in Paris
not while we were actually spending a week in Paris, but one week later when we touched down in Italy (and I’m now writing this review while sitting at home in Toronto, Canada). Although there is part of me that likes the idea of my reading mirroring real life, I think the truth is—as I have discovered so many times during our world travels—that things often work out better than I ever could have planned them. I’m not sure—had I read this book before arriving in Paris, or even while we were in Paris—that I would have responded to it precisely as I did.
Note that I have purposefully used a neutral verb—respond—to categorize my feelings about this book. In truth, I found The Sweet Life in Paris
a perplexing and, oft times, frustrating read… but as far as fiction matching reality, the same could be said about how I feel about the city of Paris itself. Although our recent visit was actually my third time in the City of Lights, my response to it this time was entirely novel: on previous trips, I had found myself reveling in the city and the rhythms of life and the idiosyncrasies particular to Parisians/the French, swept away by how “worldly” it all was. This time, however, I was the worldly one, and while I don’t pretend I’m too cool for Paris/France/Europe, I found myself flooded with ambivalence for the place. Now, as much as I found things that I legitimately enjoyed and loved, there was a bitter frustration and impatience that adulterated my feelings as well.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, a little about the book in question: The Sweet Life in Paris
, is essentially a collection of short, rather light-hearted (some might even say, humorous) essays recounting Lebovitz’s uphill battle to wrap his head around and grow accustomed to the Parisian way of life after moving to the city following the devastating loss of his long-term partner. As a pastry chef, there is a heavy emphasis on the French (and more specifically, Parisian—yes, there is a difference!) approach to food, and every chapter closes with a recipe or two. It’s part memoir, part travelogue, part recipe book; all things I enjoy.
I feel as though I should have responded strongly to Lebovitz’s book since it expresses a bit of exasperation and bafflement with Paris in the title itself that seems sympathetic to my own feelings. Yet there was something about this book just didn’t sit entirely well with me… and I’m not 100% certain why exactly that was. The things that Lebovitz recounts as initially being sources of confusion and frustration for him were indeed things that I noticed during my visit and that annoyed and confounded me as well—things like the omnipresent smell of urine throughout the city, the cutting in line, the different approach to customer service—so, it's certainly an accurate depiction of the city. But I think I also found myself frustrated because clearly Lebovitz now considers himself one of "them", a Parisian, and so the things that are true about Paris and its denizens but are not necessarily cute or appealing to us outsiders, he so readily dismisses or brushes aside, and that annoyed me. I’ve no doubt this is because I was feeling peeved with Paris myself, but I suppose I wanted someone to dig a bit deeper into not just the things that would make life in Paris sweet (which he does quite well), but the things that would really alienate and enrage as well. There are always two sides to being an expat or an immigrant, and while no one wants to spend time with a whiner (after all, no one forced Lebovitz to move to Paris), I think it’s somewhat disingenuous to sweep all inconvenient truths about the reality of living la vie parisienne
under the rug. For most of us, the arrogant, rude attitude of Parisians isn't charming or alluring—it's annoying and rude, and I suppose having Lebovitz talk about the ways that he has worked to model himself after these people wasn't affirming and positive for me.
Obviously my feelings about this book are not so easily separated from my own feelings for Paris, much as I suspect was the case for Lebovitz while writing it... though of course we are on opposing sides of the love-hate divide for the city. If I loved the city, as Lebovitz clearly does, I'd probably do so with a bit of that unconditional attitude that he's adopted; it's not that he doesn't acknowledge the warts of the city, but he diminishes them, perhaps more than he should (or at least, more than I could).
[As an aside, it's interesting to me to take a moment to note that we often want writers to be unbiased and level-handed in their approach to subject matter, but how often to we expect the same from readers? Can someone who dislikes or feels antipathy towards Paris ever be expected to truly get on board with a book that is essentially a love letter to the place?]
I did legitimately enjoy reading about the weird little quirks about Paris, though I do wish there was a bit more heft to the points Lebovitz raises: perhaps were he to talk to locals to provide depth to his observations rather than simply leaving it at "French people don't drink water with their meals and are very stingy about imbibing it afterwards." This is weirdly true, but I want to know WHY this has become a part of their culture as opposed to the North American mentality of “the more water the better!” Anyone who has spent even a small amount of time in Paris can remark on the sometimes odd differences between the culture there and the U.S., but I would expect that someone who now considers himself a local, would be able to provide insight into these divergent habits, giving them some context rather than simply raising them and then dismissing them as weird. It was this lack of critical insight into his subject matter that I found perhaps most disappointing—these are topics you can tackle without presenting them as a value judgment, but can instead be pursued more dispassionately as a mild form of social anthropology. Obviously Lebovitz wasn't interested in doing this, but I really wish he had been!
Ultimately, this form of personal non-fiction so often lives & dies based on the personality of the author: if you like him, then you’ll probably enjoy his musings and exploits. If, however, you find them pompous/pretentious/show-offy/trying to hard/disingenuous or simply downright offputting, it will be a lot harder to enjoy a book like The Sweet Life in Paris
. I thought that as a writer, Lebovitz did a fine job: his prose was light and fun and pleasant enough to read. That being said, he definitely attempts to bring the funny and, well, humor is so personal and not all of his jokes landed with me; I often found his attempts at cheeky coyness to be kind of grating. I also found that his attempts to pertly wrap up each essay sometimes overreached and weren’t always successful, but I suppose Lebovitz is really a baker first and a writer second and even if some of his wrap-ups were a bit clunky, this was by no means a deal breaker for me.
More problematic, however, was that I secretly found myself thinking that were I ever to meet Lebovitz in real life, I might find him insufferable. So many of his stories seemed to revolve around how he knew famous people, and even if he himself isn’t in that same strata of fame, he was all too happy to dwell upon his moments breathing in that rarefied air. In a similar vein, Lebovitz often struck me as annoyingly ingratiating: his many references to how he would bribe the Parisian workforce into liking him via copious baked goods (apparently Brownies Americaines are the equivalent of a golden ticket with Parisians) wasn’t charming or amusing, but instead made him seem like a suck up and the locals like dicks. Not all of us are award-winning pastry chefs, nor do I find the thought of bribing neighbors, acquaintances, or my local butcher with sweets as a means of exacting friendship from them appealing. In situations like this, it’s hard to know where to place the brunt of my displeasure: with Lebovitz for being a smarmy brown noser, or with Paris for encouraging this kind of behavior.
On the topic of sweet treats and their ilk, when food wasn’t being discussed as a means of lubricating social interactions, I really enjoyed those parts of the memoir. I also look forward to trying out some of the recipes that he included in the book (even if the picky part of me wishes that sometimes it were a bit more obvious why certain recipes were included with certain essays. I suspect this will not affect how successful/delicious any of the dishes are, but from an editorial stand point, it kind of bugged me how he really had to reach to shoehorn some of the dishes in.). I just wish there could have been more on French food culture, or really just French culture, than there was on the ins & outs of Lebovitz’s life, which he just happens to be living in Paris. I think Lebovitz misjudges how much he personally acts as a draw for readers; I think for most people, the topic of Paris will be infinitely more interesting than the inner psyche of a random expat who happens to live there. And therein lies the rub for most memoirs and personal non-fiction, I think: is the subject the person or the (sometimes extraordinary) circumstances in which they find themselves? For me personally, I tend to err towards preferring an emphasis on the latter, but I think its hard for memoirists to remember this. At least, it certainly seemed to be true for Lebovitz.
Overall, this was a complicated read for me, but I suppose that’s only fair given my complicated feelings towards the primary subject matter. I enjoyed the act of reading The Sweet Life in Paris
and felt it was an easy book to get lost in and was also a quick read as well, but I think personally, I found the book imbalanced, overemphasizing the sweet at expense of the bitter. I’m not saying I wanted Lebovitz to bitch and moan about Paris, but I think—just as with chocolate—a little bit of darkness to counteract the saccharine musings about how awesome his life in Paris is, would have been welcome. Maybe I wanted this book to simply reflect more of my own feelings about Paris rather than those of Lebovitz, and I was constantly frustrated (or jealous?) that he seemed to be having such a better time there than I. As it was this book was pretty much a soufflé: light & satisfying in the moment, but ultimately full of air and holes and doesn’t give you much to digest soon after finishing it.
Of course, Lebovitz can always send me a tray of his infamous brownies to try and change my mind...
Rating: 3 out of 5