The book Death in Provence by Serena Kent (a.k.a. Deborah Lawrenson) offers a fun mystery romp set in France. It centers on Penelope Kite, a British divorcee, who buys an old country house with dreams of renovations and dinner parties but instead finds a dead body in her swimming pool. A former forensics doctor’s assistant, Penny embarks on solving the case of why her neighbor was killed while avoiding being killed herself.
A Cast of Colorful Characters
Early on, we meet Penny’s friend Frankie who, with her loud clothing and vivacious bold personality, swoops in to help investigate the odd behavior by the village locals. She and Penny’s repartee reminded me of the show Absolutely Fabulous and I would have been happy to read a sleuthing Ab Fab pair in Provence. But Frankie departs a third into the book. That was a bit of a disappointment but it soon dissipated as the juicy plot events took over.
Those juicy events unfold because of a French real estate agent named Clémence who keeps us guessing on her intentions. A handsome mayor’s polish may betray his nefarious dealings, we’re not sure. An arrogant police officer thwarts Penny’s discoveries at every turn. Throw in an eccentric farmer and a heavy metal electrician and you’ve got a circus of intriguing questions. Without giving too much away, I’ll say there are good twists and surprises before it all ends.
Narrated With a Quick, Warm Wit
The book’s main appeal is its wit and casual narration. Penny’s inner asides about resisting croissants in the name of her waistline and brief musings about the mayor’s blue eyes make for a girlfriend-to-girlfriend tone, which I loved. Also appealing are the descriptions of the French countryside, the quaint villages, the delicious food. Ultimately, Death in Provence is a breezy mystery to remember summer by. It’s nothing too challenging yet certainly something to enjoy, making for a delightful companion as you fly away on your next dream vacation to France.
I’ll be posting an interview with Deborah Lawrenson in the next few weeks, so stay tuned! We’ll be talking books, France, writing, and the best food to indulge in after a long day in Provence.
One Sunday afternoon, I was browsing a nearby second-hand shop when I came across two enchanting paintings of Paris. One was of a bookstore, the other, a wine shop. They were snippets of that city’s life. The focus was solely on one store rather than an entire street or overview of the city, which you often see in paintings and photos. Their colors were muted and dark, deep greens and maroons dominated. They were painted in rough strokes. And they weren’t particularly valuable, perhaps even recreations of more famous paintings I don’t know, but they spoke to me so I bought them and took them home.
Two Portraits of Paris
The first portrait is simple. It’s a corner book shop, advertising both ancient and contemporary books, with a nearby planting of flowering shrubs on a sun-dappled day. There are iron posts lining the sidewalk. The upstairs balcony is curtained, hinting that a person lives above the shop but who that is is up to our imaginations. And the street lamp reminds me of fancy French style. It all reflects my favorite things: books, Paris, and plants.
The second portrait is even simpler. It shows a wine shop, Les Coteaux du 9ème, a wine distributor that seems to be alive and well today in the 9th arrondissement of Paris. We see the store’s awning, its flowers, and a glimpse of the street sign, rue Notre-Dame de Lorette. The colors soothe in forest green and muted gold. Whenever I look at it, I think of sharing a bottle of wine with my husband or close friends. And thinking about that makes me happy.
A Dining Room’s Sparse Decor
I hung them in the dining room. It took me a long time to find the right art for that space, a broad swath of wall on either side of an antique cabinet. Because we eat dinner there on most nights in fall and winter, I wanted art that was moody and warm, and something small enough to be the spotlight of the wall’s show. I wanted reassurance. That the actual pictures belonged to another person at one time makes me happy. The frames are lovely but not overly ornate. They gently glow in a chunky, brushed light gold. The surfaces are crackled though I doubt they’re originals. They’re signed and marked “Paris,” but I can’t make out the artist’s name. Unless I rip off the brown paper on the back and explore further, I’ll never know if they’re mass-produced reproductions.
But I don’t much care one way or the other. Their purpose isn’t to impress or behave as part of a collection, it’s to remind me of the things I love as I eat dinner with my family. For that, they function perfectly.
What do you have in your home that reflects what you love? Tell me in the comments below!
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Earlier this summer, I gathered together a stack of books about France to inspire me as I wrote my novel set in Provence. In June, I lengthened the list and jumped on the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge bandwagon. The collection included novels and memoirs and I made a few substitutions along the way. It was fun to spend the summer dreaming about life in the French countryside.
Results of the Challenge
Overall, I’d say the challenge went well. I didn’t read all 20 books but the books I did read were the most relevant to what I wanted out of the list, information and inspiration about Provençal life. I’m glad I read Elizabeth Bard’s Picnic in Provence, Richard Goodman’s French Dirt, and Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. They taught me much about the culture and people. Plus, I love all three of those writers’ voices. Deborah Lawrenson’s The Lantern was a highlight as was her mystery Death in Provence, written under the pen name Serena Kent. By the way, I’ve got an interview with Deborah appearing in the next few weeks.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the two Marcel Pagnol classics, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. I felt disappointed about that since those stories were the initial inspiration for my book. (I have seen the movies more than once.) Those stories are also a big reason Provence became famous in its own right. But I’ve moved them to my nightstand now so all’s well. The final book I’d like to get to before I complete edits on my novel is Anita Hughes’s French Coast though the setting there is the coast and not the countryside’s interior. But I think it contains features that match my novel’s story so I’m curious.
In the end, I didn’t meet the challenge but I did accomplish a lot. I read 10 books and wrote a novel. Good enough for now. Here’s the updated list.
- Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard, Read!
- Swimming Home by Deborah Levy, Read!
- Jean de Florette by Marcel Pagnol, Missed.
- Manon of the Spring by Marcel Pagnol, Missed.
- French Dirt by Richard Goodman, Read! (
for Not Quite Nice by Celia Imrie)
- The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson, Read!
- The Olive Farm by Carol Drinkwater, Missed.
- The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan, Missed.
- The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted by Bridget Asher, Read!
- Ten Trees and a Truffle Dog by Jamie Ivey, Missed.
- The Promise of Provence by Patricia Sands, Read!
- Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard, Read!
- L’Appart by David Lebovitz, Read!
- A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, Read!
- Death in Provence by Serena Kent, Read! (
for Death at the Chateau Bremont by M.L. Longworth)
- Murder in the Rue Dumas by M.L. Longworth, Missed.
- The Mystery of the Lost Cezanne by M. L. Longworth, Missed.
- Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon, Missed.
- French Coast by Anita Hughes, Read some but didn’t complete.
- The Bar on the Seine by Georges Simenon, Missed.
For my list of favorite memoirs about life in France in general, click here.
In my first article on memoirs about life in France, I covered stories of romance, food, gardening, and motherhood. Today, I’ll talk about some classics and my favorite memoir about the French lifestyle.
Paris to the Moon
Adam Gopnik lived out a lifelong dream of moving to Paris in the late 1990s, then wrote about it for The New Yorker. This is a more high-minded book, packed with Parisian history and cultural facts but full of humor too. Gopnik wittily describes the education he and his wife got in adjusting to Parisian life: the lows of searching for an apartment, buying disappointingly tiny appliances, the unashamed sexiness of French doctors. It also has a political tinge as he touches on terrorism in Paris, which now in retrospect, seems eerie and prescient.
Overall, you will delight in Gopnik’s keen insights and sharp humor, especially if you personally know French people or the culture. One memorable moment comes when he points out the strange disparity of how, when a new gym opens, they celebrate by laying out a huge spread of high-calorie, high-carb pastries for patrons. Everyone must have breakfast after all!
Mastering the Art of French Eating
So if you were to take Elizabeth Bard’s memoir and turn it on its head, you’d get Mastering the Art of French Eating. Ann Mah, an American, moved to Paris because her husband was a U.S. diplomat, but she suddenly found herself alone for a year when he was reassigned to Iraq. In Paris, by herself. Ugh, right? Well, she found solace in French food and in investigating the history of it. We learn about the origins of boeuf Bourguignon and buckwheat crepes, which is surprisingly interesting.
I personally connected with this memoir because when I lived in Paris, all I thought about was my husband back home in Seattle. It was a bittersweet ride because I went through this weird, delightful experience of working and living in Paris but the love of my life wasn’t with me. Mah aches for her husband as well. The scenes of them struggling to visit online broke my heart a little. Good news, they were reunited. And bought their own tiny piece of Paris.
A Year in Provence
For insight into life in Provence, this should be your first pick. It’s a classic. A British guy decides to get away from the rat race and buy a country house in Provence. Dreamy, right? No. There’s lots to fix up and lots to go wrong. But Mayle’s voice is witty and his love of Provence is endearing. The book is packed with interesting anecdotes about the locals Mayle meets and the troubles he endures to renovate a home in France. It also includes a fair amount of information on the delicious food of Provence. This, as I understand it, was really the first memoir about France that led to a surge of interest in the Provence region. Deservedly so.
French Women Don’t Get Fat
This book changed my life. It altered my outlook on eating and food. I learned how the French don’t “live to eat” but rather “eat to live,” and in doing so, don’t need to deal with the American-style of overeating and its consequent shame. This supported what I learned firsthand when I lived in Paris. The French’s attitude is excess isn’t flattering so don’t do it. Simple, right? Heh. Easier said than done. But Mireille Guiliano, with this book, shows how it can be done.
Guiliano is the CEO of the Veuve Clicquot empire and has lived in France all of her life. This book is unlike the others in this list in that it’s written by a French person. It’s part lifestyle guide, part memoir. Guiliano outlines her own childhood and how her family’s eating choices were dictated by the seasons and rooted in nature. She discusses the French’s attitude toward eating, which is to enjoy wholesome, healthy, delicious food but not too much of it. Another piece of advice? Exercise enough (e.g., walking) so that you stay slim but not so much that you have to suffer and get sweaty. If you do overindulge in eating one day, pull back the next just a little so your weight doesn’t get too far out of your control. The book is full of small practical tips like this peppered with personal anecdotes about how Guiliano approaches or has approached each of these situations.
Some may find her words unrealistic or snobby but I found them powerful. And considering this woman is a slim, attractive person in her older age is a testament that it works. After several years now, it’s worked for me too.
This book makes the list because it’s so darn useful if you want insight into the dealings of real estate and home renovation in France. American chef David Lebovitz decided to move to Paris on a whim and figure out the details later. Well, the French don’t do “whims.” He found this out the hard way.
Picnic in Provence
Elizabeth Bard’s follow up to Lunch in Paris. She and her husband move to Provence and work to create a slower, more wholesome life. Again, it’s anchored by food and recipes of the region, which of course is beautiful and alluring. They fix up a historic house, adjust to country life, have a son, and open an ice cream shop. You know, the usual.
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English-language memoirs about life in France usually follow a common trajectory: an American or Brit or Australian somehow lands in France and must cope with the unfamiliar culture while learning the language and navigating a new job or life situation. They often cover settling into that new life, fixing up a home, shopping at local markets, cooking food, discovering romance, etc. They are mostly light-hearted affairs with only a touch of drama. In short, they can be formulaic. But I often forgive their formulaic nature because an author’s voice, experiences, and narrative structure do vary. I also forgive the formulas because, to put it simply, I love France.
It’s worth noting I’ve read plenty of memoirs about France that haven’t resonated with me. The prose was either average or the actual story was nothing terribly impressive — or I didn’t click with the author’s persona. But the number of favorites outnumber the number of duds. Here are a few of the most insightful memoirs about life in France.
Of all the books listed here, I think Almost French captures the allure and awkwardness of romance between an ex-pat and French person. Sarah Turnbull stumbles her way into Paris via an invite from her future husband and never looks back. Then comes the struggle to learn French, to deal with government bureaucracy, to understand a mate with an odd sense of humor. But Turnbull doesn’t whine nor does she sugarcoat, she mostly reports, probably because of her journalistic background, which beefs the book up not only with acute observations but informative facts about Paris.
One moment I’ll never forget, and what seems to sum up the difference between the French and other Westerners is when her husband scolds her for wearing sweatpants in public. She’s about to leave their apartment to make a quick run to the bakery. He’s horrified by her sloppy clothing choice. “It’s just the baker,” she says. “Yes,” he says, “but it’s not nice for the baker!” That’s stuck with me a long time. I highly recommend this book.
Bringing Up Bébé
I used to think my husband and I parented in a stricter-than-average way. We didn’t let our kids run around at restaurants, or groan about what they had to eat, or get every popular new toy. We trained them to often say “please” and “thank you.” We taught them not to complain when they had to share, to go to bed at a regular time. We love them but they don’t lead, we do. Then I read Bringing up Bébé. With much relief, I realized we’re not strict, we’re just French.
This is a wonderful memoir about American Pamela Druckerman’s observations of French parenting. A journalist married to a Brit, she lives in Paris. After she has a baby, she meets a lot of French mothers. While her child is disobedient and bratty, the French children are behaved, happy, and not picky eaters. While she feels lost at what to do with her child, the French mothers know exactly what to do with theirs. For the French moms “No” means “no,” put your own life first, and most of all, don’t view your child as a “king.” Children don’t need to be indulged but viewed as a young human who needs wisdom and discipline. Plus, Druckerman investigates the research, which turns out to support the French style. It’s a memoir every new parent should read.
As a professional gardener, it was difficult but enticing to read this memoir about growing a garden in France. What a dream, after all. Who wouldn’t want to adopt a rectangle of land and grow a bunch of plants in a dreamy place like Provence? That’s what New Yorker Richard Goodman did. He’d never gardened before, let alone in a foreign country. His naivety might make gardeners roll their eyes. But he was educated quickly about horticulture and the salty, often serious Provençal people. I don’t know which was more difficult but his optimistic outlook makes the American reader root for him.
What’s special about this book is its cast of characters. You get a close look at a Spanish couple living in Provence, themselves somewhat outsiders despite being in France for decades. You meet the old farming families that actually grow the grapes and lavender and olives that makes the agricultural industry there tick. It offers a clear, insightful look at how rural life in Provence operates. And the garden that Goodman grew? Not particularly special but perfectly respectable for a beginner.
Lunch in Paris
In essence, this is a love story with recipes. Elizabeth Bard landed in London as a graduate student and met a handsome Parisian Ph.D. student. Soon, they married and she found herself living in Paris, coping with French in-laws and a foreign culture. Food plays a large role in this. At each chapter’s end, there are recipes based on the previous story Bard has told. I haven’t made them but they do seem delicious and remind me of the freshness and beauty of French food.
Bard’s breezy voice will either win you over like a girlfriend or grate on you. I like it. She’s vivid with details and open about her vulnerabilities. Very American. But that’s the charm. She, as I when I lived in Paris, sometimes feels like a clunky, forward, overweight American even though by our standards she’s a perfectly appropriate, slim enough woman. If you’re looking to escape, this memoir is a sweet journey of romance, food, and Paris.
In Part 2, I’ll cover a classic about Provence, a classic about Paris, another on French food history, and the memoir that drastically changed my life.
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