Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The French House by Don Wallace ~ my review

You would not have to be a Francophile or rehabber or surfer to enjoy Don Wallace’s story of his and wife Mindy’s French fixer-upper on an island with whopper waves. This book’s stories revolve around a ruin purchased off Brittany’s coast and slowly restored in starts and stops over decades, but The French House is mainly about family and friendships, dreams and disappointments.

Youthful Don and Mindy became enchanted with the wild, natural, simple ambiance of Belle Île living, and influenced by a former professor and mentor of Mindy’s, bought an ancient disaster of a house near the professor’s own cottage there. As the young couple builds writing careers in New York City, they scrimp and save to pay for enough repairs to make their Belle Île dream house livable. On repeated visits, they get to know the villagers and the island’s unique history and culture. After being made to feel like outsiders, their antennae sharpen to perceive the politics of survival and friendships there. They become acutely sensitive to people’s motives, even to the point of questioning Mindy’s mentor’s motives for luring them there.

The French House consists of 25 themed chapters. That chapters are not chronological is not problematic, at least for me, because they tell interesting human interest stories. I did not feel the need for step-by-step house renovation stories. I enjoyed the descriptions, humor, and charm of the vignettes in this memoir. Besides simply enjoyment, I suppose I ended up with a takeaway, too: Dreams are not realized overnight or in a straight line.

Here are four excerpts to give you a flavor of The French House:

To our right, the valley’s opposite slope hangs over the meadow like a dark wave, broken in places by white limestone crags poking through the gorse. Beneath each crag is a cave, like a blind eye socket, turned toward the sea. P. 129

At times memories were not enough, and we succumbed to doubt and despair. Did we make a mistake? Would we ever get back there? Perhaps most alarming was how sometimes, when we shook the imaginary paperweight [snow globe] to reawake our memories, nothing happened. To fail to summon the spirit of Belle Île was desolating. P. 132

There were days when I felt myself becoming just another faceless cheap-suiter wearing out his shoes on the Gotham sidewalks, but each night … I emigrated upstairs to a vacant apartment and wrote. I wasn’t going to let that dream get snuffed out. P. 133

[After a funny language-foibled conversation while picnicking on a Belle Île beach with villagers as they await the incoming tide’s signal to begin surfing] Everyone cackles, trading double entendres, and an hour passes in beach blanket Babylon: French people trying to speak English, French teenagers practicing American rapper slang with the American boys, and the lone American adult addressing men as women and women as men and referring to himself as both. P. 31