For a person who has never been to America nor even seen so much as a second of footage of Julia Child doing her thing in the kitchen, I’m sort of obsessed with her. It’s all the fault of the movie Julie & Julia, which instantly became one of my favourites the second it was released. Having said that, I have to admit that the ‘Julie’ sections didn’t interest me as much as the ‘Julia’ ones did; Julie Powell’s life in her tiny apartment, trying to cook all of Julia Child’s recipes in the space of 365 days, was a cool idea, but somehow I found myself wishing her sections would just speed up so we could get back to Paris of the 1940s and 50s, and back to Julia and Paul Child’s life together in that wonderful city.
My Life in France is, essentially, exactly what I loved about the movie, with none of the annoying ‘modern’ bits. It’s Julia Child’s memoir, written in conjunction with her great-nephew Alex Prud’homme, and it opens (after a short introduction) with her memories of the first sight of Le Havre from the porthole of the boat that she and her husband had just crossed the Atlantic in. They were moving to Paris so that Paul could take up a government posting in the city, and even though Julia was overwhelmed, slightly, at the idea of this whole new life in a new country, she dived in with remarkable aplomb, determined to relish every second.
On their way from the port to the city, they stopped for dinner at at restaurant called La Couronne, where they ate a meal of sole meuniere, something for which Julia was completely unprepared. As a girl, she had had no interest in cooking (only in eating), and she had no familiarity with the ingredients or the techniques which had gone into the food that was placed in front of her. Paul had to explain what things were, and what the scents meant, and he was the one with the knowledge of wine, as he had lived in France twenty years before. Julia’s mind was opened to the possibility of food as an art, and as a science, and what would become the grand passion of her life (her beloved husband excepted) had just begun.
I adore the idea that Julia Child, then a woman in her mid-thirties who had pretty much drifted through life up to this point, could find and follow her dream without a second’s hesitation. She knew it when she saw it, and she grabbed every opportunity to deepen her knowledge of food and French techniques of cooking, and she didn’t start out by being prodigiously gifted. She had to learn, and it was a steep curve – something the book makes very clear. Child’s no-nonsense, down to earth voice is all through this story, telling us of her many failures and frustrations as well as the simple pleasure achieved when a recipe – alors! – manages to go right, and the resulting meal turns out to be a delight. She has a warm, friendly, and very funny voice, which instantly draws you in and makes you feel like you’re a close friend, someone who lived in the next room in 81 ‘Rue de Loo’ (Rue de l’Université), perhaps, or someone who regularly came around for dinner (like the expat writer Alice B. Toklas who, for reasons unknown to Child, seemed to turn up a lot, uninvited, at their dinner parties). I also loved the story of Julia and Paul’s life together, from their meeting in what was then Ceylon in 1944 and their slow, gentle and beautiful courtship, to their marriage when she was thirty-four and he forty-four; she never speaks of him with anything less than devotion. If you’ve seen the movie, then you have some idea (through the wonderful performances of Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci) of the depth of love and mutual respect this couple seemed to have for one another. Their example is a good one, for all of us – whether married or not!
We get Julia’s impressions of Le Cordon Bleu, where she went to study, and we get a very clear idea of how hard she worked – getting up before dawn every weekday and working, sometimes, until midnight, practising and honing her skills. We hear her unvarnished opinions of her fellow students (including a bunch of GIs who were there, we discover, to waste time more than to learn), her instructors and the irritating woman who ran the school and repeatedly refused to allow ‘Madame Scheeld’ to sit her examinations. The pages keep turning, and finally the exciting moment when Julia meets Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle looms, and the seeds for what would become (after years of excruciatingly hard work) their magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, are sown; we also get a fly-on-the-wall view of what it was like to take part in l’École des Gourmettes, the cooking school set up by the three friends, which gave private lessons to ladies who wanted to learn about French cooking.
Eventually, Julia and Paul have to leave Paris because of his work, and eventually they have to leave France altogether. Julia and Simone keep working on the book, mailing one another chapters and recipes and criticisms, and Julia’s painstaking, detailed and absolutely scrupulous experiments, which ensure that the recipes are absolutely foolproof, are tested to destruction. The stresses caused by their different approaches to work on Julia and Simone (or ‘Simca’s’) friendship are explored, clearly and unsentimentally, as is the struggle to get the book published; where Julia was interested in the science of food and the reasons why things work or don’t work, Simca was far more a traditional French cook, who wrote down the way things had always been done, and who found it hard to vary the recipe when an improvement could be made, or when American tastes had to be catered for. They remained friends until the end, though, with Julia and Paul ‘retiring’ to live beside Simca and her husband Jean in the French countryside.
This book is an incredible memoir. I’m not a big fan, usually, of autobiography, but this one I absolutely love. Julia McWilliams Child’s voice, her humour, her approach to life, her lack of fear of trying new things, her absolute commitment to the people she loves and her utter single-minded determination to work as hard as she can to achieve her goals, are inspirational. My heart warmed to her impressions of herself as a gawky, six-foot-two red-headed American in a Paris full of dainty women, and I loved how even though she was aware of all the things which made her different, she was proud of them instead of being ashamed or awkward. She owned herself, and she loved her life, and I don’t know what could be more wonderful to read about.
I just wish I had been her neighbour, or a classmate, or one of her students, or a guest at her dinner parties. But as she’d say herself: Eh bien! Tant pis!