A young woman’s search for purpose and identity takes her from her stifling, humdrum home in 1950s Cleveland to exhilarating Paris, where anything seems possible, in this novel cum travelogue by French-American expat and literary agent Fuerst.
When Barbara Glass graduates from Western Reserve in the late 1950s, there’s just one thing on her mind: Paris. Unlike the rest of her female contemporaries content with trading in their books for secure secretarial jobs, Tupperware parties and wedding bands, Barbara bucks convention (and her controlling mother’s interests) to embark on a solo adventure to France by boat, in the style of “la fuite en avant—escaping from something through forward movement.” What starts out as a two-week stint turns into more than 10 years in la Ville-Lumières (the City of Lights), as she slowly transforms from country-bumpkin tourist to full-fledged Francophile. Through Barbara’s increasingly enlightened and sophisticated eyes, readers will want to come along for the ride as Barbara “trips” from her first raucous Bastille Day celebration to the Palio horserace in Siena to an Edith Piaf concert at the famous Olympia concert hall to war-torn Algiers during Ramadan. Heartaches—her best friend’s suicide following a bout of postpartum depression and amphetamine withdrawal, a thrilling but ill-advised one-night fling followed by a risky abortion, a long-term and inevitably terminal affair with a married man, her father’s fatal heart attack—are sprinkled in for good measure, adding necessary depth and meaning to what could otherwise seem like a fluff piece about a privileged college girl’s adventures and misadventures abroad. Told in first-person and including details similar to Fuerst’s life (like her protagonist, Fuerst is from “the Mistake by the Lake” and spent more than 20 years living in Paris), it’s hard not to imagine the book as a quasi-memoir, especially since the descriptions of smells, sounds and sights teem with such life and verve so as to suggest firsthand experience. As an added bonus, Fuerst balances out the narrative with three chapters that give a sociological overview of the Silent Generation (Barbara’s generation and, presumably, the author’s). While these interruptions initially seem out of place within the confines of the story, the topics covered provide interesting cultural references (wool bathing suits, the publication of the Kinsey Report, Levittown) and insights into a generation that is often overshadowed or misunderstood.
Look beyond its misleading title; this potential sleeper hit has about as much to do with LSD as the French do with Cool Whip.