One of the worst consequences of terrorist attacks like those that recently devastated Paris is the sense of lost innocence they leave in their wake. It is as if our feelings of optimism and joie de vivre have been brutally erased. Thus, in this season of Thanksgiving, I am grateful to have read Elizabeth Bard’s lovely memoir, “Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes,” because it reaffirms the beauty and romance we associate with Paris, as well as the indomitable spirit of the French people that no bomb can destroy.
Trite as it may seem, love does conquer all, when it is mixed with an open mind and a spirit of adventure, as is the case in this story of the American author’s love affair not only with Gwendal, the adorable young Frenchman she meets and marries, but also with the city of Paris, which becomes her new home. At first, Bard’s book reads like a “chick-lit” romance and seems geared to a young, female audience. However, it has several qualities that save it from being a mere pastiche. Terrific characterization, combined with penetrating insight into French culture, and writing that is full of pizzazz make “Lunch in Paris” a pleasure to read no matter what one’s age or gender might be. (Oh, and let’s not forget the food!)
Bard introduces us to a host of colorful, interesting people, foremost of whom are herself and Gwendal. When we meet them, we can’t imagine how two personalities that seem to be polar opposites could live happily ever after. She is a self-described nerd: bookish, a worrier, and very goal-oriented. “It’s not that there’s no free spirit in me,” she says. “But it’s a free spirit with a five-year plan.” Her plan, initially, is to earn a master’s degree in art history in London and become a museum curator. Then she meets Gwendal at a conference there, and her life changes radically.
Gwendal, unlike Bard, is a laid-back, happy soul. He tends to take life as it comes, and get this – his hobby is tap-dancing. This is not to say that Gwendal does not have a serious side. He’s smart, hard-working, and his recent Ph.D in computer science earns him a good, if boring, job.
The basic conflict is not so much that the lovers have very disparate personalities, but that their cultural expectations are very different. As an American, Bard believes that a person’s possibilities are limitless. Gwendal, on the other hand, feels it’s pointless to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker and is resigned to his lot in life. In France, he explains to her early in their relationship, “If you want to do something different, if your head sticks up just a little, they cut it off. It’s been like that since the Revolution.” This attitude irks his lover no end.
As an expatriate living in Paris, Bard courageously struggles to learn a new language and to contend with a host of other cultural differences. She regales us with amusing stories about learning to eat sparingly like a good Frenchwoman, her discomfort about having to wear a bikini on the beach, and her difficulties in mastering the art of food shopping. In France, she quickly discovers, the customer is not always right, and merchants feel free to tell her so, since they are fiercely passionate and very opinionated about the fine food they produce.
The author treats us to great descriptions of the meals she has enjoyed with family and friends, and, at the end of each chapter, provides recipes that relate to the food consumed in them. The cuisines vary from French, to Moroccan, to American, so there’s a fine range of goodies for you to try. Many of the recipes, like the one for lentils with wine, herbs and tomatoes, will appeal to vegetarians. Where meat is concerned, the recipes lean heavily toward fish, but her braised beef with red wine, garlic, and thyme sounds delicious too. I was glad to see that Bard has a sweet tooth, as well, and I can’t wait to try her recipes for individual molten chocolate cakes and profiteroles.
In the end, as we wish all people could do, Bard and Gwendal learn to live with their differences and help each other grow and change. I think you will find this seemingly simple, but actually very complex, book a feast for your emotions and your palate.