What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind - Debra Ollivier I am always wary when an author presents a “typical” person of any kind. In this case, it’s the “typical” French woman, and as we all know, this person probably doesn’t exist outside of popular opinion. At the same time, there is nearly always a grain of truth in a stereotype, and in this case the generalizations have more to do with cultural conditioning than any solid, definable “type” of person. Also, this being a self help book for all intents and purposes, the generalizations are necessary to present a philosophy that is applicable to life, namely American life. Because this is a book built on generalizations and broad strokes, be aware that the statements I will make in regards to this book and the French way of life will most likely be equally non-specific. They may be inaccurate or only half-true, but I think they can be helpful for all that.

I became fascinated by the French in high school. Like many sensitive, bookish and –let’s face it, pretentious- teenagers, I thought there was something truly amazing about a culture that didn’t seem obsessed with being likable or ambitious. A culture that could produce the likes of Rabelais, Moliere, Sartre and especially de Beauvoir, not to mention some of the most glamorous and tragic American expats, felt so inviting and almost magical when surrounded by a world of grin-and-bear-it perpetual optimism and soul-crushing popularity contests. Americans are not generally encouraged to sit and contemplate existence, much less come to the conclusion that life might, in fact, be rather pointless; we’re supposed to grab life by the balls and force it to meet our expectations. If things aren’t turning out the way they “should,” we must not be trying hard enough. This perspective has never sat well with me. In the broadest terms, Americans love control and we want everything to be black and white. We want to have everything defined and categorized, not to mention sterilized. Not so the French, or so Debra Ollivier says.

Ollivier is an American married to a Frenchman, so she does have the advantage of being both on the inside and the outside of her material. She has spent years living in Paris and the States, comparing and contrasting the way of life in both places and internalizing the elements that have allowed her to make a life on foreign soil. What French Women Know is a guide to incorporating certain French ways of thinking into your life, in hopes of capturing some of that joie de vivre of which they seem to have such an abundant supply. Thankfully, Ollivier doesn’t treat her material like a guidebook; there are no lists, no 12-step formulas or life-affirming mantras. That would be terribly un-French. Rather, she has taken observations and anecdotes and filtered them in such a way as to contrast the “best” elements of Gallic life with its Anglo counterparts and see how they measure up to each other. And, for the most part, I’d say she’s pretty fair; neither culture comes out on top as “the winner,” but I have to say that much of the French philosophy, with some definite exceptions, is more appealing.

For example, Ollivier asserts that the French are all about the “middle ground,” whereas America is the land of highs and lows. Where an American might put all their hopes for the future and all their energy into a romantic relationship, the French are much more cool-headed and ambiguous about romance. Your spouse (or your children, for that matter) are not the end all and be all of happiness; they’re important, but a French woman will focus on balance where an American woman will buy into the mythological Happily Ever After. It should be pretty obvious that the great H.E.A has wreaked considerable havoc in the American psyche. We build industries on it and rely on it as an important component of not just our emotional economy, but our monetary one as well. A phenomenon that is, when you come to think of it, a little sickening. France has a wedding-honeymoon-baby economy of its own, of course, but it’s nothing to our behemoth Bridezilla empire.

The middle ground vs. black-and-white argument covers a lot of ground. Our American concept of beauty, for instance, is a bizarre world of contradiction. We have a cookie-cutter ideal that suffers little variation and results in some very unhealthy behaviors (not to mention mental health issues), but at the same time we have a plus-size industry that is unheard of in France. The French, bless them, have the wonderful and not-exactly-clear philosophy of jolie laide, which translates hideously to “ugly pretty.” The French are famous for having an abundance of beautiful women, but if you look very closely, very few of them fit the criteria we so rigorously enforce in America. They embrace “flaws” as character; a large nose, a flat chest, too short, too tall, these things are accepted and flaunted rather than concealed or “fixed.” Again, this isn’t absolute and there are plenty of ugly people in France I’m sure, but a big dose of confidence and sex appeal really goes a long way to trick us into ignoring this little inconvenient fact.

Ah, speaking of sex appeal, that’s the real heart of all of this. The middle ground approach doesn’t allow for the bizarre extremes of American attitudes to sex, which vacillate alarmingly between voyeurism and denial. Thanks to our Puritan ancestors for that one. The French accept sex, as well as many other perfectly natural things, as just another part of life, and a valuable one at that. Americans indulge in pleasure, no doubt about that, but the flip side is nearly always guilt and half-hearted justifications. The French find this ridiculous and almost incomprehensible. The French aren’t the only ones; America is one of the few nations outside of Islamic countries that regularly censors biology books intended for children and has made it an unofficial rule that all toys must be gender neutral below the belt.

I know this is starting to sound like a lot of America-bashing, but it’s really not. I love my country, even if sometimes only because it’s mine. Ollivier admits that there are aspects of the American way that work just fine; we are generally friendly and civic-minded, and when we want something we will work hard to get it. And the French have their flaws too, with their don't-give-a-damn attitude towards strangers and a notoriously vague way of making judgments. But Ollivier’s suggestion throughout this book is to temper our cultural extremism with a little moderation, and to enjoy life for what it is rather than for what it merely has the potential to be. Don’t worry so much about smudged make-up or if your romantic encounters don’t suit the one-size-fits all labels we so like to apply to them or if your kitchen doesn’t look like Martha Stewart’s. Life should be enjoyed because it really is short and I doubt many people will be on their death beds wishing they had put in just a few more hours a week in the office. This is a philosophy I would love to embrace, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. Now, France has the advantage of not actually needing to cultivate any of this, it’s embedded in the deepest heart of their culture and comes naturally. I will have to work on it, but it’s nice to have a guide to remind me that there are parts of the world where not getting a promotion is not a heart breaking scenario or that there are couples in the world that don’t give up their adulthood when children arrive, and about a million other little things that would make life feel more balanced and less like a color-coded to-do list.

I’ve gone on and on about the ideas of the book, probably more than is remotely necessary, but I would also like to mention that Ollivier is a very engaging writer. Her style is witty and conversational without that feeling of someone trying too hard to be charming. It’s very natural and enjoyable. It’s very French.