Monday, March 24, 2014

Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod (2014)

There is a certain type of story which I love love love (love love). It involves a woman, usually a journalist or a writer, moving to Paris and falling in love, both with the city and with the man of her dreams. These stories always involve lots of cheese and bread, amusing descriptions of adapting to French life (the kitchens are so small! Women are so good at wearing scarves!) and, always, at the end there is a moment when the journalist/writer realises she is perfectly, truly happy. My favourite of these stories is Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French. The year it came out I got three copies of it for Christmas (and I kept all three, I loved it that much).  Paris Letters sits in that same literary subgenre, with one key difference: rather than being a journalist or novelist, Janice McLeod is a blogger. As I shall show you, that has a huge effect on the final product.

Janice McLeod works in advertising in Los Angeles. She has a good job and a nice house, but she’s just not happy. One day, sitting at her office, she starts to think – how much money would it take to quit her job and live in Paris for a year? She randomly picks the figure of $100 a day and she saves up $65,000, quits her job and moves to Paris.

I like the idea of everything McLeod writes about, but I found myself increasingly irritated by its execution. For example, she picks a figure of $100 a day as the necessary amount she needs to have to live overseas. It would have taken like 10 minutes to google the average costs of living in Europe, but instead she just picks a number that feels right to her. What’s more, after seeing how she went about saving this money, it felt to me like she was constructing her story so it would read well, rather than telling the truth. She says that she saved money by cutting back on expenses and selling her stuff, in the process decluttering her apartment. But then, in one paragraph at the very end of the chapter, she reveals that in fact she made a bit of money on the stock market with help from some friends. So, how much of the giant amount she was able to save – US $65,000 – came from actually saving and being frugal and how much from playing on the stock market?

She gets to Paris and meets a butcher and falls in love. She was a vegan in California, but once she gets to Paris she is just…not a vegan anymore. No explanation, but I was left with the strong impression that if a bunch of McLeod’s friends started jumping off a cliff, she wouldn’t hesitate in joining them. At this stage, I realised that there was something a bit strange about how this memoir was written and, when McLeod mentions she was blogging her experience, I realised what it was – the book is written like a series of really long blog posts. It has the overuse of the word “I” and the telescope-like focus on the self that is typical of much personal blog writing. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing – this writing style can be hugely popular, as the success of blogs such as McLeod’s illustrate – but it’s not just one I enjoy very much. I realised I had incorrectly placed Paris Letters in the “foreign woman moves to Paris” subgenre instead of the “adapted from a popular personal blog” subgenre. Once I realised that, I enjoyed the book a lot more because, instead of questioning motivation and causality (like unsurprisingly, $100 a day wasn’t enough to live on) I just rolled with it. It would have been a better book if the secondary characters had been fleshed out more or if MacLeod had at any stage acknowledges the privilege that allowed her to do the things she did, but it was as a book-from-blog memoir, it’s fine.

Three stars.

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