SSoP Podcast Episode 57 — France: Mostly Here for the Butter

SSoP Podcast Episode 57 — France: Mostly Here for the Butter

Friday, 24 May, 2024

This is a transcription of France: Mostly Here for the Butter

David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.

Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on Earth.

David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.

Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.

David: I’m David Humphreys.

David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.

[cheerful music]

David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about France. And welcome to season 6! Thanks for joining us. This is the first of 12 new episodes which will be coming out every other week between now and November. You’ll also be hearing us on episodes of the Library of Lost Time every other week. We look forward to exploring the world with you. And introducing some great new books.

David: Let’s talk about France! If you’re listening to this on launch day, the Cannes Film Festival is wrapping up. And the Monaco Grand Prix is underway. I was surprised to find out that there are budget ways to attend both of those events. We’ll have links in the show notes.

David: Today on the show, in Two Truths and a Lie, we are going to visit the amazing world of French baked goods. And then we’ll talk about five books we love that took us to France on the page.

Melissa: I’m recommending a novel that might inspire you to deepen your relationship with one special book.

David: But first: Mel’s going to get us situated with the France 101.

Melissa: Our quirky adopted travel uncle Rick Steves says there are two Frances: Paris and the rest of the country. We talked about Paris in Season 2 of our show — I’ll put a link in the show notes so you can revisit that. There are some really yummy books in that episode. I still think about The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre a lot.

Melissa: But today is about the rest of it. The châteaux, coastlines, cathedrals, cuisine, mountains, and museums — that certain je ne sais quoi that is France.

Melissa: Let’s start with a few geography basics. France is roughly the size of the US state of Texas. On the west, it’s bordered by the Atlantic Ocean. On the east, starting up north, there’s Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. The French Alps are along the eastern border with Switzerland and Italy. The Pyrenees Mountains are in the south, along the border with Spain.

Melissa: Before we launch into the sightseeing portion of our French adventures, a quick history lesson — in sweeping generalizations that would make a historian weep.

Melissa: About 2300 years ago, a Celtic tribe called the Gauls were the original settlers. Then, Julius Caesar and the Romans showed up in 58 BCE. About half a century later, a Germanic people called the Franks tossed out the Romans, and the area was rebranded Francia, which means ‘land of the Franks’ in Latin.

Melissa: Now, we make a giant leap to medieval times. Paris and the rest of France stepped up their game. The monarchy was on the rise. There was courtly love and troubadour poetry. Soaring cathedrals were built, starting with the Gothic Sens Cathedral in Burgundy in 1135. That beat Notre Dame in Paris to the punch by about 30 years. In 1337, the Hundred Years’ War started — I will sum up by saying that France and England were sworn enemies, and legend grew around a girl named Joan of Arc.

David: I’ll be talking about Joan of Arc quite a bit in a few minutes.

Melissa: In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Loire Valley exploded with châteaux built first by kings and later by the rest of the nobility. When Louis XIV built the Palace of Versailles in 1631, that showed the world that France had officially arrived as a superpower. But just two Louis later, Louis #16 lost his head during the French Revolution. The revolutionaries rallied under the slogan Liberté, Égalite, Fraternité — that’s Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood — to overthrow the monarchy… and to celebrate the technological advance of the guillotine. Then there’s Napoleon’s romp through Europe ending in 1815 with his defeat at Waterloo. But France rose again, giving us Impressionist art, haute couture, and the French baguette. Truly, we are grateful.

Melissa: Now it’s time for our road trip around France, beginning in the northeast and traveling clockwise. The itinerary I made for us is filled with things that captured my imagination that I was excited to share with you. If we were in the car together I would probably also commandeer the radio and force you to listen to a playlist of French pop songs.

Melissa: We’re starting in Alsace, in the northeastern part of the country. The Alsace region snuggles up against Germany, so the architecture and food have a decidedly German slant. The towns are filled with charming half-timbered houses that look like they popped out of the pages of Grimm’s fairy tales. Back in the day, the exposed timbers were soaked in vinegar and then coated with ox blood for waterproofing. You can still see the faint red tint in some of the older buildings. In the town of Colmar, we’ll take a lazy canal boat ride that winds past the pastel-colored houses. Afterward, we’ll sip a cold glass of Alsatian white wine and dig into food like Rösti, a potato pancake baked with cheese, or choucroute garnie, a big ol’ pile of saurkraut cooked with goose fat, juniper berries, sausage, pork, ham, and potatoes.

Melissa: Now we’re on to Burgundy. First, we’ll take a scenic bike ride along a canal and through green vineyards with a few wine-tastings along the way. For lunch, we’ll eat a picnic with strawberries still warm from the sun, a fresh baguette, a brie from a local cheesemonger, and some chocolate. After a short nap under a tree, we’ll cool off by wandering in the vaulted stone arches and formal gardens of the Abbey of Fontenay. It was founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard, an abbot and mystic who also co-founded the Knights Templar.

Melissa: Next, we could go to the French Alps for winter skiing and spectacular hiking the rest of the year — and fondue anytime. But we’re on our way to the Riviera! For sun, sand, and tales of glamour and romance.

Melissa: We start in Nice with a stroll along the seafront promenade. There are pastel-colored, belle-époque hotels, palm trees, and the perfect turquoise-blue Mediterranean Sea.

Melissa: Then we’re off to Monaco and the district of Monte Carlo. Because this is our fantasy trip to France, we’re time-traveling back to the 1950s. Monte Carlo was the playground of celebrities who came to see and be seen, gamble, and relax in the picture-perfect weather of the Riviera.

Melissa: It’s May 1955, and the beautiful American actress Grace Kelly has been invited to a photo session with Prince Rainier III at his palace in Monaco. He kept her waiting for an hour before finally appearing for the photo shoot. In the picture, they stand so far apart, their hands just barely touch in a formal handshake, tight smiles on their faces. But we can only assume that some sort of magic was happening under the surface. When the cameras were put away, the two walked alone in the garden, and Grace Kelly was charmed. The two kept up a secret correspondence and were married the following year in Monaco’s Saint Nicholas Cathedral. Among the guests were Ava Gardner, Gloria Swanson, and Cary Grant, Grace Kelly’s co-star in the movie ‘To Catch a Thief.’ The wedding was watched on TV by more than 30 million people around the world. That night, the Prince and Princess embarked on a 7-week Mediterranean honeymoon cruise aboard the prince’s yacht. There are swanky photos of all of this; I’ll put links in show notes.

Melissa: Now infused with romance, we continue to Provence. We’ll drive past endless purple fields of lavender, explore the best-preserved Roman theater, and play a game of boules with the locals before making our way to Arles. In 1888, the painted Vincent Van Gogh fled the cold and gray of winter in Paris for the warm green and gold fields of Provence. For two years he blasted out a new masterpiece every few days. Including Starry Night over the Rhone, Sunflowers, a handful of self-portraits, and The Yellow House. That last one is a painting of the house where he lived. Today, the house is part of the Van Gogh Trail. Throughout Arles, there are a dozen easels that depict Van Gogh’s paintings alongside the real-life place depicted in the painting. After our walk, we’ll relax at the Cloister Hotel and enjoy a glass of local rosé in a hidden square shaded by a 100-year-old paulownia tree.

Melissa: The next day we could travel to the Loire Valley. We might ride a hot air balloon or tour one of 300 chateaux.

Melissa: But we’re on a mission. A mission to eat the best butter in the world. It’s found in Brittany, in the small town of Saint-Malo.

Melissa: The Brittany region juts out into the Atlantic Ocean like a jaunty thumb. Saint-Malo balances on its tip, battered by the sea. Literally. Waves crash against stone ramparts built in the 12th century. They are the only thing separating the old stone houses from the foaming froth. I was smitten when I saw a video of waves hitting a rust-colored stone wall. Then I read this sentence on Atlas Obscura: ‘You can walk the length of the ramparts in about an hour, and then dip into the old city and follow its narrow cobblestone streets to La Maison du Beurre.

David: The House of Butter.

Melissa: At this shop, France’s most prized butter is pounded, shaped, and served up for sampling. The beurre d’algues is flecked with Breton seaweed, best enjoyed on a baguette overlooking the sea.’ I’m sold.

Melissa: Fans of the novel ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr might remember that Saint-Malo is the setting for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It’s the story of an unusual friendship between a young French girl and a German soldier during WWII. Heartbreaking in a good way. Brittany is also well-known for two other awesome things: crepes and the Breton striped shirt.

Melissa: With our bellies and hearts full, we head north along the coast to Normandy. We could visit Rouen’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Its Gothic spires are spikier than the one in Paris. It looks like an artistic giant made a fancy dribble castle out of sand on the beach and then transported it inland to Rouen. We could also visit the Bayeux Tapestry.

David: I’ll be talking about that in a minute.

Melissa: We could also immerse ourselves in WWII history with the museums, monuments, cemeteries, and battle remains found along the D-Day beaches.

Melissa: But I’ve got my heart set on an island that looks like it rises out of the sea by magic. It’s Mont-Saint-Michel. For more than a thousand years, the spire of its Abbey has pierced the sky from atop a hill, surrounded by higgledy-piggledy houses, all encircled in stone walls.

Melissa: Mont Saint Michel is a tidal island, so when the tide recedes, it’s surrounded by mud flats and quicksand You can sink into it up to your ankles! There’s a bit of the Bayeux Tapestry that depicts the Duke of Normandy’s troops getting stuck in the quicksand. But when the tide is in, the island seems to almost float between air and water.

Melissa: We’ll keep our feet dry and walk up to the Abbey. It’s only 900 steps! There are beautiful views and souvenir shops along the way. Even in the Middle Ages the rambling route to the top would have been lined with trinket shops for pilgrims making the climb to the Abbey. After a tour of the church and a peaceful sit, we’ll make our way back down to a cafe to try one of Mont Saint Michel’s famed omelets. They’re called La Mére Poulard, and they’ve been made the same way since 1888. The eggs are whipped in brass bowls with a rhythmic beat and then cooked over a wood-fired stove. The end result is light, fluffy, and buttery. One of the videos I watched said the omelette is like savory cotton candy.

Melissa: And with that, we conclude our road trip around France. C’est le fin de l’histoire.

David: I’m about to say three statements, two of them are true. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie.

David: We all know what a baguette is, right? A baguette is the delicious, long stick of bread French people are famous for carrying around, maybe on their bicycles in blue-and-white striped sweaters, berets, and pencil-thin mustaches — as long as we’re chasing the stereotype down.

  • The ingredients for a baguette are dictated by French law.
  • In France, it’s possible for a living person to marry a dead person.

David: This last one needs a little context. It’s about the Bayeux Tapestry.

David: The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered piece of cloth about 230 feet (or 70 meters) long. For context, that’s about 90 human strides, or maybe the length of a city block. And it’s about 20 inches tall — or about 50 centimeters. It tells a story — it tells the story of the lead-up to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

David: It is sequential art. There’s a plot, and reoccurring characters. There’s text. It’s arguably a graphic novel.

David: We can only guess where the tapestry came from or who made it, but it’s been around since at least the 1400s. It might date back to a few years after the Norman Conquest. Experts believe that it might be fan art.

David: They don’t call it that. But that’s what they’re saying. It’s the 11th-century version of a Tom Brady shrine.

David: The tapestry is currently in Bayeux — which you may have gotten from the name. Bayeux is a small town on the west coast of France. The population there has been within a few thousand people of 10,000 for the last two hundred years. But they have a charming museum there to protect the tapestry. Climate control, state-of-the-art security, audio tours in 16 languages, that kind of thing.

  • There is an exact replica of the Bayeux tapestry in Reading, England.

David: Let’s go through those statements one at a time.

David: ‘The ingredients of a baguette are dictated by French law.’

Melissa: True!

David: That is true. The French have a complicated and rich relationship with their baked goods. During the French Revolution, one of the primary complaints was the lack of bread. The aristocrats were eating all of the good stuff, and the poor had to make due with bread that was barely edible. For instance, there are stories of loaves that were at least partially dirt. This inequity led us to the unfortunate, ‘Let them eat cake.’ bit. That’s attributed to Marie Antoinette, although Wikipedia informs me she probably never said that. Rousseau likely made it up, when he was trying to smear an earlier royal. And what he wrote was, ‘Let them eat brioche.’ So that one line is like three lies.

David: The baguette, though, only became what we know it today because of the labor movement in the 1920s. It was decided then that it should and would be illegal for bakers to work between 10 pm and 4 am.

David: So the bakers are happy to get a night’s sleep, but now they have to get a loaf of bread ready for the morning crowd. And a couple of hours isn’t going to cut it for the old loafs. That’s when they discovered they could make that bread thinner and longer; that would speed up the baking time. And now we have the baguette.

David: Legislation in 1993 decreed that an authentic baguette can only be made with wheat flour, water, salt, and yeast. It also needs to be sold in the same place where it’s made. And it can’t have preservatives or be frozen—for God’s sake. So, the baguette goes from peak crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside, to stale like a rock within 24 hours — many say 12.

David: Did legislating the ingredients make all baguettes the same? It did not. There are still annual competitions for the best bakers. CNN reports that the 2023 competition in Paris had 176 entries. They were judged by a jury of 18 – made up of previous winners, baking union officials, food bloggers and six Parisians, randomly picked from over 1,200 applicants.

David: The winner that year was a Sri Lankan man. He runs a bakery in a tiny corner of Paris’s 20th arrondissement. He says his bakery’s secret is to bake a fresh batch every 20 minutes. You can change your life with one of his prize-winning baguettes for about a dollar fifty.

David: While we’re at it, I should mention that the baguette has UNESCO’s World Heritage status. According to Google Arts and Culture, more than 300 baguettes are sold every second in France. That’s more than 27 million per day, or 10 billion per year.

David: ‘In France, it’s possible for a living person to marry a dead person.’

Melissa: That sounds so odd to make up, I’m going to guess it’s true.

David: That is true. You need permission from the deceased’s family and the president of France. But it’s possible.

David: Before the last century, it was done when women were pregnant with the children of soldiers who had been killed in action. Posthumous marriage for civilians started in the 1950s when a dam broke and killed 400 people. The dead included a man who was engaged. His fiance petitioned Charles de Gaulle, and got his permission. The parliament drafted laws about it. Since then, hundreds of people have filed: men and women.

David: During the wedding ceremony, the living spouse frequently stands next to a picture of the deceased. The mayor conducts the ceremony, and instead of reading the dead person’s vows, he reads the Presidential decree. As soon as the ceremony is over, the living spouse is now legally a widow or widower and a member of the dead person’s family.

David: This strikes me as simultaneously a little spooky, gothic, and very humane. Spooky when you think about the general, ‘marrying a dead person’ but humane when you think about someone who would want to marry a dead person. And the state allowing it.

David: A posthumous marriage happened recently in 2017 when two men were married after one of them, a police officer, was killed by a terrorist. France is not alone in this practice. Under certain conditions, it can happen in China, India, Japan, and a few other places.

David: ‘There is an exact replica of the Bayeux tapestry in Reading, England.’

Melissa: So that has to be the lie.

David: There seem to be life-size copies of the tapestry just about everywhere. There’s one in Ontario at the University of Waterloo and another at an abbey in Denmark. Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones drummer, owned a Victorian copy of the tapestry until his death. The Bayeaux Museum bought that one for sixteen thousand pounds sterling. Why they want two, I don’t know. One to keep, one to trade, maybe?

David: There are others. But the effort for one of the first copies was headed up by a woman called Elizabeth Wardle back in 1885. She organized 37 women to create a copy from a full-scale water-color facsimile. That watercolor was provided by what was then the South Kensington Museum and is now the Victoria and Albert, a huge decorative arts museum in London. That full-sized replica was completed in about a year and now hangs in the Reading Museum. That copy is not, however, identical to the original Bayeux tapestry. There are naked figures in the original.

David: And whoever did the watercolor that the women were working from decided it was too much. A bridge too far. And painted clothes on the naked figures. The women faithfully recreated that.

David: If you want to want to know more about the tapestry, both the museum in Bayeux and the one in Reading have very rich web sites. Both museums have their respective tapestries online. The one in Reading is annotated. We will point to both.

David: If you want to see the tapestry in person, you can see it in Bayeux, but only for a limited time! They are packing it up to send to the British Museum sometime soonish. It was supposed to be there by now, but, from what I gather online, it’s running a bit late. This will be the first time in about 900 years that the tapestry will be outside of France. While its away, there’s a major remodel of the Bayeux museum. That’s expected to be complete in 2027.

[music - And now here are five books we love]

Melissa: My first recommendation is Clara Reads Proust by Stéphane Carlier, translated from French by Polly Mackintosh.

Melissa: This is a quick read — about 200 pages. It’s got whimsy and sweetness, without being saccharine — you’ll wish you could magically leap into the pages. It’s like Wes Anderson and Amelie went on a date in a storybook town in France.

Melissa: It’s set in a small city in Burgundy: Chalon-sur-Saône. Picture a town infused with golden light on the banks of a river with weeping willows, and a pretty cobblestone square lined with half-timbered houses and a Gothic cathedral.

Melissa: In a hidden nook, tucked down a passage is the Cindy Coiffure salon. It’s been there since 1982, and the nonstop soundtrack is Radio Nostalgie, a station devoted to hits from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It’s currently run by Madame Habib, nee Jacqueline Delage. She smells of Shalimar, cigarettes, and hairspray, but she’s convinced she’s running a posh salon. The truth is, as the narrator says, it ‘only survives thanks to a customer base of loyal regulars, whose average age is seventy.’

Melissa: This is where our heroine Clara spends her days, giving the same hairstyles to the same people and keeping up a running internal monologue about her quirky co-workers. She has a boyfriend named JB who makes everyone swoon. He’s like a Disney prince: floppy black hair, six-pack abs, skin that shows no signs of aging, and he’s a firefighter. He also remembers to buy Clara flowers on special occasions. But three years into their relationship, the glow is fading for Clara. This is how she sees him now:

‘A man who drinks a little too much the night before his days off, who hardly speaks to his father and sometimes has fights in his sleep, spewing terrible insults. A man she no longer desires. There you have it, the stubborn little cloud on the horizon of her existence. Her Flynn Rider, the mere mention of whom would once send shivers all the way down to her little toe, is now as tempting as a plate of cold meats after the Christmas turkey. She looks at his mouth and the corner that tends to rise of its own accord, the light brown of his eyes and the bounce of his hair, and she feels nothing.’

Melissa: In short: Clara is in a rut. A muddle. She’s stuck.

Melissa: Then one day, a stranger comes into the salon. He arrives in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, without an appointment. Clara can tell right away that he isn’t from nearby and decides, in a flight of fancy, that he must be an artist or an actor. They don’t speak as she shampoos and cuts his hair, but a pop song she likes is playing on the radio, and when their eyes meet in the mirror, they both smile. This one, Clara thinks to herself, she would still fancy after three years.

Melissa: And now I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be a romance.’ I was half right. When the mystery man leaves, he accidentally forgets his copy of Proust’s Swann’s Way. When Clara flips through it, she sees an underlined sentence: ‘You have a soul in you of rare quality, an artist’s nature; never let it starve for lack of what it needs.’

Melissa: And that’s the beginning of Clara falling in love with reading and with life, and, eventually, with herself.

Melissa: To tell you anything else about the plot would ruin the fun, but I can say that it’s filled with small moments of high drama — many of them are funny, some are sad, just like life.

Melissa: The story unfolds through slice-of-life vignettes and is sprinkled with quotes from ‘Swann’s Way’ so you can get a taste of ‘In Search of Lost Time’ without needing to tackle Proust yourself.

David: Did it make you want to read In Search of Lost Time?

Melissa: Hmmm… not really. But Clara gets to know those books so well, it did make me think about what book I would want to adopt and have an ongoing relationship with. To know every nuance and mark it up and read it out loud and convince other people to love it, too.

Melissa: There are a small number of books on my list of Books That Make Me Happy to be a Human. They include Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, Almost Maine by John Cariani, and now this one.

Melissa: It’s Clara Reads Proust by Stéphane Carlier and translated Polly Mackintosh.

David: My first book is ‘Joan: A Novel’ by Katherine J. Chen.

David: This is a novelization of the life of Jean of Arc. It does for Joan what Wolf Hall does for Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII.

David: When I started this book, I didn’t know much about Joan of Arc. My apologies if you already do. I’m going to briefly run through it.

David: The legend starts back in the 1400s during the Hundred Years’ War. England is trouncing France. Henry V controls everything north of the Loire – which is more than half of France. France itself is divided. There are two factions: one that believes that Charles VII should inherit the throne, and another that wants Charles’s sister to marry Henry V and unite France and England. Things are tense between the siblings.

David: Into the middle of this comes Jean of Arc. She is a poor girl from a small village. She’s about 17. She claims to be guided by visions of angels and saints. She gets an audience with Charles VII and tells him she will help save France from English domination. For very unclear reasons, he’s like: okay, sounds good, and sends her to Orleans. Orleans has been under siege. She gets there in April of 1429. Nine days after she arrives, the English abandon the siege. She encourages the French to chase them down, and they have another decisive victory at a village called Patay.

David: This change in fortune shifts French morale. First, they’re winning battles, and that’s always good. Second, this new right hand of God – in the form of Joan – is now backing Charles. The plays well, and Charles is quickly crowned King of France. Joan is standing next to him when he is handed the scepter. This all happened at Reims Cathedral, which still stands. You can walk in the footsteps of Joan of Arc there.

David: But just as quickly as all that, Joan’s fortune turns. She participates in two more battles. Both of those go poorly. At a third, she’s captured by some French who are loyal to England. They put her on trial. She’s accused of heresy and blaspheming by wearing men’s clothes. She’s found guilty. She was burned at the stake in May of 1431 at the age of about nineteen.

David: Since then, Joan has had another turn of fortune. A court overturned the verdict 25 years after she was found guilty. In 1920, she was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, and, two years later, she was declared one of the patron saints of France. There are only two other patron saints of France, and one of them is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Competition is high.

David: The novel explores Joan’s story. Who is this girl? Why is she a fighter? What drives her? And, maybe the most interesting question: when did the legend start? At one point, she was a 16-year-old girl in a tiny village in France, carrying water and chopping wood. Three years later, she was on the path to be a patron saint of France. How did that happen?

David: This book is almost three books.

David: It starts as a coming-of-age story. There is a strong sense of 15th-century France. The village has strong ties to nature. The residents live in houses where you can hear your neighbors laughing and crying. These are hard lives. There’s also a short investigation into the otherworldliness of cinnamon.

David: The book then becomes a military story as Joan goes off to battle. Chen tells us what battle looked like then.

David: Finally, there’s the court intrigue. What’s it like to be Charles VII? Or in his circle? What happens when Joan starts to fail? When it becomes clear that she is not the sword of God?

David: It all worked really well for me. The book has interesting things to say about Joan and her times and the creation of a legend, but two bits in particular were amazing to me.

David: I don’t want to spoil this book, but there are two scenes in this book that do a magic trick. The trick is: nowhere in the legend does it say that these two scenes take place. Both of the scenes involve Joan talking to influential people. There are no dialogue scenes in that legend. And yet, having read the book, I firmly believe that, in history, those two scenes took place. She had those conversations, in one way or another.

David: The author Chen is currently working on her next book. It’s about the complicated sibling relationship between King Arthur and Morgan Le Fay. I’m very curious to see what she’s going to do with it. This book is ‘Joan: a Novel’ by Katherine J. Chen.

Melissa: My second recommendation is Murder on the Île Sordou by M.L. Longworth.

Melissa: This is a great book to read if you wish you could hop on a plane for the south of France right now.

Melissa: Imagine you’re in Marseille. It’s a clear, sunny day. The light is sparkling on the dark blue Mediterranean as you step into a boat bound for an island off the coast. The wind is in your hair, and as you take in the view, Marseille fades away into the distance, you secretly observe the other passengers on board. You’re all on your way to the grand re-opening of the Locanda Sourdou resort. As you approach the island, you see a pink hotel with curving balconies on top of a hill.

Melissa: This is the setting for a cozy-ish murder mystery. It’s the fourth installment in the Verlaque and Bonnet Provencal series. The books are all set in southern France — in and around the city of Aix-en-Provence, and the settings are always characters in the stories. The author ML Longworth does a bang-up job of weaving culture, history, and cuisine into the plot.

Melissa: The hero of the series is Antoine Verlaque — he’s a judge in Aix-En-Provence. He’s never without his longtime lady love Marine Bonnet; she’s a law professor. Antoine is conveniently rich, thanks to his inheritance from the family flour mill. He and Marine are like a French version of Jonathan and Jennifer Hart from the ’80s TV show ‘Hart to Hart.’ They’re glamorous and enjoy the good life. Even though they’ve been together for ages, they flirt with each other like they’re only a few dates into their whole situation. And wherever they go — a family chateau, an art museum, a theater, a vineyard — they get caught up crimes.

Melissa: In this one, Antoine and Marine are meant to be on holiday on the Ile Sordou. As they sip champagne at a welcome reception in the cocktail lounge, they’re reunited with Marine’s best friend — and they’re informed there’s no cell reception on the island. Let’s call that Chekhov’s Wifi.

Melissa: They also meet the other guests and the staff. There’s an American couple who’s very aw-shucks about the hotel and the scenery — and a Parisian couple who is decidedly not. A famous actor, now a bit past his prime, along with his latest wife and her troubled son; the three of them are already creating drama. There’s also a retired French teacher who’s a wannabe poet and loves the works of Frank O’Hara. Plus the owners and the rest of the staff.

Melissa: When I read mysteries with a closed circle of suspects, I always cast them like a movie so I can keep all the characters straight. In my mental movie, Michael Sheen with a French accent plays Antoine, and Marion Cotillard is Marine. I also cast Chris Pine as the boatman-gardener and Jeremy Allen White from the TV show ‘The Bear’ as my chef.

Melissa: The guests and staff are deliciously irritable. There are early hints that things could go wrong: petty arguments, the young boy goes missing, a creepy lighthouse keeper shows up in the middle of dinner, mumbling cryptically. Then, as you’ve probably guessed by now, one of the guests is murdered. Naturally, everyone except Antoine and Marine are suspects.

Melissa: The author ML Longworth does a few things really well with the tropes of this kind of golden-age-inspired mystery. First, the setting is glorious. The descriptions of the scenery transported me right there.

Melissa: Second, she gives all of the characters compelling backstories, so it’s not just the American, the actor, the Parisian, the waitress. They’re well-drawn with strong motivations — which makes them all legitimately suspicious.

Melissa: Third, its energy is kind of kooky. After the murder, in the throes of the investigation, Antoine decides to host a dinner party. He figures if everyone gets a little drunk and relaxed, they might slip up and reveal a clue. Of course, during the party, there’s a raging storm and boom! the lights go out. It’s like a delightfully deranged version of Clue and a bit farcical.

Melissa: But it’s not all laughs. The investigation goes to dark places and unearths buried secrets. Then, before the mystery is solved, there’s another death. The story ends with a classic reveal when Antoine gathers everyone in the bar to explain how everything went down.

Melissa: I should also mention that the series has been adapted for TV. It’s called Murder in Provence, and while it does not star Michael Sheen as Antoine, it is fun. I’ll put the trailer in the show notes. The book is Murder on the Île Sordou by M.L. Longworth.

David: My second book is ‘A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II’ by Sonia Purnell.

David: This book is about a woman who was dropped into occupied France and became a resistance fighter and a spymaster. She had no background in any of that. Virginia Hall grew up in a middle-class family in Baltimore. Before her life as an asset for an international spy organization, she had been an executive assistant and an ambulance driver.

David: And Hall was missing half of a leg. She had a clunky, mid-20th-century wooden prosthetic below her left knee.

This book is a ride. Hall goes into a dark situation. Early in the book is this bit:

‘No one in London gave [Hall] more than a fifty-fifty chance of surviving even the first few days. For all Virginia’s qualities, dispatching a one-legged thirty-five-year-old desk clerk on a blind mission into wartime France was on paper an almost insane gamble. Her mission, code-named Operation Geologist 5, would expose her to grinding fear and the perpetual likelihood of a grisly death. There was no reception committee to welcome her or ready circuit for her to join, but she was permitted—even obliged—to commit a range of crimes from subversion to murder. To survive she must lead her double life to perfection and avoid capture at all costs. Her disability might help protect her—in that she made such an unlikely agent—but at the same time it rendered her more conspicuous.’

David: But she went in, claiming to be a journalist for the New York Post but, in truth, working for the British Special Operations Executive. Soon after she got there, a dozen SOE agents were arrested in Lyon, leaving her almost the sole agent in Vichy, France.

David: But, miraculously, Hall gets the job done. She manages to recruit people, inspire and direct, fight the power, really piss off some Nazis, save some lives, and generally be a fantastic human. Part of this book is almost competence porn.

David: But then this book has a good feel for what it’s like to be a resistance fighter in France during and after World War 2. It’s scary. There are betrayals and captures. Friends disappear, sometimes overnight. Whole cities become unlivable. The book gives a very good impression of how claustrophobic WW2 spy work must have been.

David: There are amazing stories in this book. Hall runs all kinds of missions, from sabotage to rounding up supplies dropped from planes to training little pockets of resistance fighters. She gets a reputation for busting people out of prison, so that comes up a few times. She eventually leads teams of guerilla fighters to liberate France.

David: There’s also a story of when things get so bad she has to escape France. Because the Nazis are air-dropping posters with her photo that say, “The enemy’s most dangerous spy: we must find and destroy her.” The way she escapes is to cross over the mountains between France and Spain, the Pyrenees. By foot. On a wooden prosthetic. Largely unprepared.

David: There’s a quote from Chuck Yeager in this book. He’s the test pilot who broke the sound barrier. He made that trip later in the war. Of that walk he said, ‘The climb is endless. The bitch of bitches.’

David: The author describes many fascinating people throughout the book. There’s a madame in Lyon with expensive tastes and a huge collection of black cats; one of the cats follows her everywhere she goes. She and Hall become close friends. There’s a race car driver, an acrobat, and members of high society.

David: It all creates this larger-than-life, fascinating, and sometimes terrifying picture of WWII France. And then the war ends.

David: One of the things that I’ve often wondered about is what happens to everyone after the war is over, when they’re trying to recover and get back to normal. Spoiler: it’s not great. There’s a lot of work that has to be done to shake the feelings off. If one can ever. And, for many, their situations have changed dramatically. They’ve lost their homes and their livelihoods and suffered significant losses. The grief has got to be immense. How do you get back to a new normal from there?

David: The book follows Virginia Hall through the rest of her professional life with the CIA. There she fights what NPR calls ‘the mundane tyranny of sexism that stymied her career.’

David: This is a rich, full-bodied biography of a remarkable woman. If you’re curious about the French resistance, or the early days of the CIA, or just this one extraordinary woman, I’d recommend it. It’s ‘A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II’ by Sonia Purnell.

Melissa: My final recommendation is Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin. This book feels very French because it tackles big life themes like love and death and swings from whimsy to heartbreak, sometimes on the same page.

Melissa: It’s set in a cemetery in a small town in Burgundy, and it’s populated by characters who are charming and eccentric, but also feel like real people.

Melissa: The narrator is Violette Toussaint. Her first-person voice feels even more intimate than usual because she’s very forthright and unselfconscious. Rather than describe her myself, I want to read you the book’s opening. Dave, I’m pretty sure I made you listen to this when I was reading the book the first time around:

‘My name is Violette Toussaint… I’m a cemetery keeper. I savor life, I sip at it, like jasmine tea sweetened with honey. And when evening comes, and the gates to my cemetery are closed, and the key is hanging on my bathroom door, I’m in heaven. Not the heaven of my closest neighbors. No. The heaven of the living: a mouthful of the port — 1983 vintage — that José-Luis Fernandez brings… me every September 1st. A remnant of the holidays poured into a small crystal glass, a kind of Indian summer that I uncork at around 7 P.M., come rain, or snow, or gale. Two thimblefuls of ruby liquid… I close my eyes. And enjoy. A single mouthful is enough to brighten my evening… My present life is a present from heaven. As I say to myself every morning, when I open my eyes.

I have been very unhappy, destroyed even. Nonexistent. Drained… Without the weight of my soul, which, apparently, whether you’re fat or thin, tall or short, young or old, weighs twenty-one grams. But since I’ve never had a taste for unhappiness, I decided it wouldn’t last. Unhappiness has to stop someday.’

Melissa: So, despite tragedy, Violette has shaped a good life for herself that’s marked by small pleasures. Then one day, a detective named Julien knocks on her door. And he’s about to unsettle every aspect of Violette’s life.

Melissa: Julien has a mystery about his own life to unravel, and he’s the catalyst for Violette to unearth her past, too. As she does, we see her daily life at the cemetery. And, slowly, we learn her backstory: her difficult upbringing, her no-good husband who’s gone on the lam, and the one terrible day that tore a hole in her heart.

Melissa: We meet the friends who now form her social circle, and it sounds like the setup to a joke: three undertakers, three gravediggers, and a priest walk into a cemetery…

Melissa: The gravediggers are quirky and kind. There’s Nono who is amused by everything and never says no. There’s Gaston, who is the embodiment of clumsiness — like, he routinely trips and falls during funerals — and Elvis, who can’t read or write but knows all of Elvis Presley’s songs by heart.

Melissa: Violette lives in a little house inside the cemetery gate and thinks the souls buried around her are her neighbors. She takes her commitment to them very seriously. Her door is always open to cemetery visitors for a coffee or something stronger. She keeps a series of journals in which she carefully notes the details of each funeral. Alongside the date and name of the deceased, she records the weather, whether or not there was a priest, how many people attended, how long they stayed, and anything unusual that might have happened. Just in case someone comes along who missed it.

Melissa: She also has two wardrobes that she calls summer and winter, but it has nothing to do with the actual seasons. The summer clothes are light and colorful. She wears them hidden beneath the gray and black winter clothes so the newly bereaved aren’t assaulted by happy colors like pink or red.

Melissa: Some passages of this book are so infused with joy, I had to take breaks from reading because my heart felt so full. The first time Violette goes on holiday to the Mediterranean Sea, she rolls down the window and sobs at its beauty. She says, ‘Over the ten days, I don’t think we put shoes on. That’s it, I’ve understood what holidays are about: not putting shoes on anymore.’

Melissa: Other bits are so sad, I gasped out loud and, again, had to take a little break from reading. Mostly, I loved Violette so much. This kind, open woman who had to claw her way back to life. She deliberately chose to pursue goodness and happiness, to be grateful and connect with other people. Filling her life with act after act of small, daily bravery.

Melissa: To be honest, I was kind of wrecked for a few days after finishing this book. In a good way. It opened my heart with happiness and sorrow, and it didn’t close up for a while. I was feeling EVERYTHING very strongly. It was great, and I would do it again.

Melissa: If you’ve read and loved ‘Still Life’ by Sarah Winman, you might enjoy this one, too. It’s ‘Fresh Water for Flowers’ by Valerie Perrin.

David: Those are five books we love, set in France. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com. We’ll have pictures of Grace Kelly. And we’ll have links about getting into the Cannes Film Festival.

David: Mel, where are we going for our next episode?

Melissa: New York City!

David: Thanks for listening. We’ll talk to you soon!

[cheerful music]

Top image courtesy of Maria Orlova/Pexels.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

It's one last blast of summer with this twisty novel of a perfect French holiday gone horribly, delightfully wrong. You'll feel the relentless sunshine glint on the pages as you careen to the very satisfying ending.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter

Join our Substack to get our FREE newsletter with podcast updates and behind-the-scenes info join in fun chats about books and travel.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
Sign up for our free Substack!
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.