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This is a very chipper book, and no wonder. The rain never falls in the Provence of Anne-Marie Simons, the mistral never blows or only on other people, the New Age bullfights are bloodless, a nasty car accident just proves the sweet reason of French insurance, the olives, sardines, and wine—always à volonté—can’t be beat anywhere on all the continents or the seven seas, the locals turn out on schedule in traditional duds for ancient festivals, and everyone is astonishingly good-natured. Et cetera. Candide’s El Dorado, one suspects, was not quite so nice.
The good news is that Ms. Simons can’t force her smile or hold her breath much longer than anyone else. But you must make your way through more than half her book to discover that Aix-en-Provence, where she and her husband Oscar put down their roots, is “shamefully dirty,” that strikes are a rip-roaring pain, and that French farm subsidies drive up prices and oppress third-world farmers. And, of course, the French are a nation of râleurs, i.e., they piss and moan all the time. The mistral blows after all. When she finally departs from the best-of-all-possible-worlds breathlessness and admits real humans live in real towns and cities in the south of France, she gives the reader a strong sense of place, for example, about la Camargue and Marseille, and daily life.
Her greatest enthusiasm is for food—from markets, in restaurants, straight out of the water (in the case of sea urchins), from farms—and food seems to bring out a stronger sense of adventure in her than anything else. This includes being taken by friends to a special restaurant which turns out to be the kitchen of a poacher who serves up ortolans (this is a guess, since she doesn’t name the little birds) which were, famously, the illegal Last Supper of François Mitterand.
For the rest, Taking Root in Provence is a little bit of a lot of things—memoir, partial tourist guide to parks, mountains, churches, music, and art, observations on customs, festivals, and rituals, which come right after food on her hit list, and finally a testament to well-being or to having made the right choice for a place to live comfortably in retirement. That the book is many things but no one thing is not bad or even a criticism. It is a personal book, and that will be what appeals to a reader or not, depending more on the reader than on Anne-Marie Simons.
The last part of the book is a collection of thirteen Provençal recipes by Oscar. They are explicit and easy to follow (though in some, the measures are metric, in others English), and for some readers may be worth the price of admission.
Thierry Picot is a franco-américain who took early retirement from academia, where he taught medieval history and Romance linguistics. This is his first book review for BonjourParis.
Taking Root in Provence by Anne-Marie Simons is available at our Amazon.com French Marketplace.
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