Learning about the French: A Year in the Merde (Review)

This opens up a new category for ‘reviews’ on my blog (YAY for new categories! :D) and my first review is for ‘A Year in the Merde’ by Stephen Clarke. This book is a famous expat-in-France novel about a young Brit Paul West who moves to France for a year. I liked the play on the title ‘A Year in the Merde (i.e. shit)’ over the idyllic, picturesque image of France given in ‘A Year in Provence’. The blurb made me laugh when it described going on strike as the ‘second national sport after petanque‘. Plus I recently finished reading Almost French and loved it, so why not try this one?

So I found it in a bookstore in Paris and sat down expecting some belly laughs (I had first heard about it from my aunty who told me “I actually belly laughed when I read it”). It starts with Paul’s first day on his new job in Paris, the opening joke is how the French pronounce his name. It’s clear from the beginning that he can’t speak French very well and is making an idiot of himself trying to communicate with bitchy French receptionists (good luck buddy). Then I realised something… his name is Paul. What? I flipped back to the front of the book ‘by Stephen Clarke, an English journalist who lived in France for 10 years’ and then it dawned on me.

IT’S A NOVEL!

This completely threw me off – I had sat down thinking I was reading a true story about his time in France. Why would a journalist who spent 10 years in France not write about his actual experiences? I admit it turned me off, I was in the mood for a true memoir not a novel. It’s kind of like going to the movies thinking you’re about to see a comedy and you get ‘Sophie’s Choice’ instead. ‘Sophie’s Choice’ might not be a bad movie, but you’re probably going to like it less when you wanted a comedy right?

But I decided to push with it, the humour in the book is pretty dry and it is funny – but I personally, couldn’t get any belly laughs out of it. An occasional chuckle here and there, but most of the laughing happened inside my head. Maybe if I was a horny, 27-year-old British male I would laugh more?

The ‘chuckle out loud’ moments I got was when he described typical things expats hate in France i.e. strikes, French administration, bitchy Government workers and how to get served free tap water in Paris and not the expensive bottled stuff.

Then there were moments that made me doubt he had every lived in France, let alone for 10 years. There’s a scene early on in the book where he meets a sexy, French girl at his office. It doesn’t take long before she’s dragged him into the men’s toilets and showing him a good time. Then she pushes him away, “oh non, non, non – I ‘av a boyfriend.. I cannot ‘ave an affair with an anglais!‘ she says.

Oh Puh-lease!!

Why don’t you just dress the poor girl in a French maid’s outfit and make her any less of a stereotype? A Parisian girl who is beautiful (check), she’s horny (check) she cheats on her boyfriend (check) Because all French people have affairs and are obsessed with sex! Grrr As someone who has friends who are French, lived with a French family and had a French boyfriend, I just don’t like seeing French people presented as such two-dimensional characters. Yes the French are pretty liberal when it comes to making ‘l’amour’ and nudity but this scene was a definite eye roll over a ‘spot on, that’s what the French are like!’ moment.

There were some other French stereotypes, the incredibly dashing and always dressed-to-the-nines French business-man, the promiscuous Parisian uni-student who smokes weed, the French philosopher type complete with a beret and then Paul’s first French girlfriend breaks up with him because they disagree about French politics… and then she just disappears from the novel! She never makes a reappearance!

On one hand I like that there wasn’t only one love interest and overall the plot isn’t bad. By the time I got to the end I felt I enjoyed it, it has a satisfying ending but the hardest thing for me was the characters. I know I’m a bit biased having lived in France, and French people are probably easier to get to know if you already speak French but they’re still just people and not that different from anyone else.

I think this book is ideal for British people who’ve never been to France, can’t speak French and like to make fun of the French.

Don’t read it if you think you’ll understand French people or French culture more, you’ll just get a very cliched image of it. A much better book in my opinion is ‘Almost French’ by Sarah Turnball (it’s has a 4 star rating on Amazon, compared to this one’s 3 stars) maybe I’ll write a review on that one too…

Overall – 3 stars!

I kinda laughed in my head… rather than out loud, no belly laughs from me! Maybe you need to be a horny English man?

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