An undistinguished memoir of expatriate life in the south of France.
In 1950, when Littell was four, his parents abruptly decided to relocate from the suburbs of New York to the Languedoc city of Montpellier—a place the author likens to Cincinnati (“a city that gets little recognition or respect”). The move was unexpected on many levels, for the senior Littells were not bohemians, had no apparent love for French culture, and had solid careers going in the US. But, whatever the reason, off they went to experience adventures high and low. Mary Littell, the author’s mother, kept a diary of her sojourn in France and later recounted her experiences in magazines such as Parents and Woman’s Day; Littell draws on her diary and journalism to create his narrative, which is told in her voice. The daily events of which Littell writes are sometimes charming (as when Mary, not handy in the kitchen, attempts to prepare a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving for her French friends, with disastrous results) and sometimes astute (as when Mary ponders the many reasons for the pronounced French dislike of all things American in the heyday of de Gaulle). Still, it doesn’t add up to very much; the none-too-exceptional events described herein are half-a-century old, after all, and that ordinariness gives the narrative a family scrapbook feel. Littell opens by praising Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence—whose many readers he’s presumably aiming to share. The problem is that (cloying though those privileged, still-life-with-credit-card portraits sometimes are) Mayle is by far the better writer, and he writes of a way of life that readers will want to emulate—as they will not in the case of the Littells.
An exceedingly minor travelogue, albeit with plenty of good moments.