As you may or may not know (or care) I am in France at the moment. I've got a house here, on the border of Normandy and Brittany, and I'm spending the month of July in it. When I first bought it, over thirteen years ago, I'd thought I would probably come and live here when I retired, but since I retired life has somehow overtaken me-- in the best possible way -- and the move has not yet been on the agenda. But I've always wondered if I should do it, if I'd like it if I did do it, and so on. So I was more than delighted when Sourcebooks kindly offered me a review copy of a book by someone who really did do it.
Karen Wheeler is, I think, a very brave woman. A successful fashion journalist and esrtwhile fashion editor of The Mail on Sunday, she found herself unexpectedly and unhappily single at the age of thirty-five. Increasingly sick of her empty life of handbags and designer shoes, feeling threatened by the twenty-something man-hunters who seemed to have sprung up while she was happily ensconsed with her lover, she decided to give up her Notting Hill flat and move to a small, unrestored house in rural France. Thus, the beginning of this delightfully readable book finds her with a car full of black bin-liners (mostly stuffed with designer clothes) on the road to the coast, and thence to the ferry, and thence to the peaceful village in Poitou-Charentes where her dream house awaits her. Even her departure from London is not without its problems.
As the car limped to the end of the road, its suspension several inches closer to the ground than usual, I realized I had forgotten something. Panicking, I reversed at speed, the sound of china rattling ominously as I hit the traffic bumps.
Fortunately Daisy and Jerome were still standing at the gate.
"How do I get to Portsmouth?", I yelled.
"The A3", Daisy shouted back. "Follow the signs to Hammersmith".
"I give it a month", said Jerome, shaking his head, "before you're back".
In fact, of course, Karen does not come back, or certainly not to stay. The rest of the story tells of her adventures during her first year in the village. The house, bought on a whim a year earlier, is almost uninhabitable. She has great plans, of course, involving Farrow and Ball paint, large comfortable sofas, a wood-burning stove and a courtyard filled with roses, jasmine, geraniums and herbs. But those plans are far in the future as she doesn't have any hot water, there's a huge hole in the kitchen floor, and everything in the house is brown -- wallpaper, paintwork, ceilings and bathroom tiles. Everything, that is, except one room which has been carefully painted in its entirity with white gloss paint by a willing but expensive French workman who misunderstood her instructions.
Slowly, of course, everything starts to come together, though not before Karen has spent a hideously uncomfortable week in a tiny designer tent on a very noisy campsite, a hideously expensive week in a grand and not particularly attractive hotel, and many weeks, even months, camping out in her own house and living on bread and brie. Not for the fainthearted, you will think, and I know this is true having lived in my own unrestored Oxford house for three months without a kitchen, bathroom, or heating, surrounded by builders and holed up in one grubby room. But of course, many ups and downs later, everything does come together as she had hoped and planned, and by the end of a year the house is totally gorgeous.
But this is far from being a house restoration book, or at least that's only a small part of it. This is also the story of Karen's own restoration, if I can put it like that. She has been literally devastated by the sudden disintegration of what she thought was a permanent relationship and her year in France is also the year of slowly healing her broken heart. There are plenty of ups and downs along this road too -- men who appear and then disappear, swear undying love and then return to their girlfriends or wives, or turn out to be gay (as does the gorgeous patissier). But Karen survives it all with enormous gaiety and humour. This is greatly helped by the friends she makes in and around the village, both French and English. Some of her stories of nights out with the ex-pat community, mostly over sixty-five and frequently extremely drunk, are truly and horrendously hilarious, but there are enough people of her own age and inclinations to make her social life, as she comes to realise, a lot more enjoyable than the one she had in London. As for the designer clothes and shoes, there's a wonderful moment when she decides she really doesn't need them any more and bags them all up to take to the depot vente (from which they are then bought by her friends, much to her amusement).
This is of course a perfectly true story, though she admits she has changed names and perhaps embroidered a little bit. But as you can see from her own blog, Karen's life does continue in France and she is still there now. Indeed there's a second book, Toute Allure, and I think a third is on the way. I shall certainly be reading these as I am definitely a fan now, and so would you be if you picked up this very enjoyable book. Highly recommended.