Tender, witty memoir about the contortions of childhood and first love.
French author Bouillier (The Mystery Guest, 2006) delights in the pell-mell selection from his life story of seemingly random details that carry a mythological significance, such as names (his own surname means “small birch forest”) and dates. Born in Algeria in 1960 while his father was performing compulsory military service, he moved with his parents and older brother first to Lyons, then to Paris when he was five. Early on, he contracted staphylococcus aureus, possibly from licking the windows of a train. He lost his sense of smell and nearly died from the virulent infection, but “was more than a little proud of having caught something that turned out so difficult to spell.” Bouillier later re-created the “toxic shock” of this event when he met one of the defining loves of his life, Laurence, on a train. His childhood was marked by the accidental scalping of his best friend on the playground, the breakup then rapprochement of his volatile parents and his love for Marie-Blanche Fenwick, the daughter of a haute-bourgeois family residing near the Champs-Elysées. His glimpse of Madame Fenwick washing her bottom over a bidet suffused the nine-year-old with a sense of beauty and redemption, swiftly eclipsed when a drug scandal sent the Fenwicks fleeing from the country. Later, Bouillier recognized he had tried to recapture that glorious feeling of youth by plunging into a doomed romance with a girl in a dove-gray blouse who lured him to the Gulf of Mexico, dove-gray and golf being two emblematic words associated with Madame Fenwick. (And golfe being the French word for gulf.) Left at wit’s end after the girlfriend vanished, he returned to his parents’ home, plunged into Homer’s Odyssey and put aside painting for literature: “It was my sacrifice for continuing to live,” he says.
An author who vaunts his “likable kookiness” finds fresh invention in the sum lessons of his life.