Tuesday Reviews-Day: The French House

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“An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village That Restored Them All”

Who wouldn’t be curious about a book with such an intriguing subtitle. Especially if that who happens to be me, at the time in the throes of purchasing my own home (which some would also have considered ruined where we just saw potential). In The French House, Don Wallace tells the story of how he and his wife Mindy came to own a falling-down house on the island of Belle Isle off the coast of Brittany, back in the 80s as fledgling writers living in Manhattan. 30 years after they purchased the home, almost sight-unseen, at the urging of a local friend and former school mentor of Mindy’s, the house went from ruin to what I would call full of character and quirks, and a fitting retreat in a French village that has staved off many of the modern advances and tourists threats over the decades.

The writing is infectious. Take, for instance, these passages from early in the book, a page of Instructions they uncovered in some old notebooks.

Bonjour et bienvenue

There are a few things that have to be done immediately when you open the house. Please read ALL these points carefully.

3. Water heater. To turn on the water for the water heater, go to the closet across from the cabinet. It is full of sporty stuff (tennis rackets, golf clubs, swim fins, masks and snorkels, spear guns, wet suits, Frisbees, bocce balls, all of which you may use after you complete every step of these instructions).
You want to get water going into the heater. To do this, peer behind the water take–at the base near the wall you will see a black switch. Turn it parallel to the floor. You should hear a clunk. Note: do not touch the red faucet. Nobody knows what it does. We think it connects to the secret core of hot magma that lies under the island and, if thrown, will result in worldwide catastrophe. You will have hot water in about three to four hours. And it will be hot. Very! Be careful not to scald yourself….

4. Bathroom. Go upstairs to the bathroom. By the toilet you will see boxes of the septic tank chemical that will keep everything smelling sweet. Put two packets in the bowl and flush.
Despite this, you may notice a sort of sickly odor that rises like a miasma at night when the entire village is humming behind closed doors and windows are fogged from all the shower baths taken in succession. This odor should be ignored; taking notice of it will only encourage it.
For Women Only: You will note that there is only one tiny mirror in the bathroom and no mirrors anywhere else in the house. This is deliberate and done for your own well-being…we recommend cultivating the Belle Ile look of bohemian-athletic-seaside dishevelment to go with that Coco Chanel suntan you’re working on. The same goes for clothes….
For Men Only: If you have any male children, it may be wise to have Daddy demonstrate how the toilet lid works, or fails to, if you’re attempting to take a whiz while standing up. Just when you least expect it–bang!–the lid falls like a guillotine.
Don’t worry if you botch this demonstration. Even if your son starts wetting the bed because you nearly amputated your own unit, you’re in luck–not for nothing is Belle Ile known as “the island of psychiatrists.” There are two in Kerbordardoue, another three in adjoining villages, and then all sit down at the beach together, which makes an informal consultation easy to arrange.

5. Stove/Oven: France uses propane for cooking, which is interesting if you think of her distinguished pedigree for cuisine and how, in America, a propane tank is associated with backyard barbecue or football tailgating.
Under the sink is a blue bottle with a round disk valve on top. Turn this all the way open. Wait a minute and turn on a burner and light a match to test it. Note: We turn off the blue gas bottle at night. (Just our neurotic American ways, I guess, but once you read about the the oven you will understand.)
Important oven note: sadly, the oven has become so unpredictable we have to say: try to avoid using it. The dials mean nothing, so you may think you have turned it off and it is merrily filling with gas.  There’s a reason the knobs are unreliable. One afternoon our son Ror’s older cousin Devo filled the stove with gas before lighting the oven. The resulting explosion removed his eyebrows and budding soul patch. It also blew the knobs across the room….I think one knob is still embedded in the wall, the others dangle on the stove, looking deceptively functional….

6. The fireplace: Works well….just keep the fires small, especially at first, so the smoke has a chance to draw up the chimney and dry it out after the long winter….
P.S. The barbecue in the fireplace goes outside, to the right, where our house’s white wall meets the rough stone of the shed….
P.P.S The bicycle in the chimney is also to be removed before starting any fires. If you can get the chain to stay on, feel free to ride it. Don’t ask why it’s there. That’s a story for another time.

Reading this before bed that first night I stopped and reread the entirety of the Instructions to Todd, stifling some giggles along the way. I don’t think the author would mind in the least, though.

Go ahead and laugh–at the joke, at the house, at us. We’re used to it.

With an introduction like the above, you might get the idea that The French House is all droll humor and quips when in reality it gets real, fast. They buy the Belle Ile house, their building in New York City goes co-op. They have a child. They have career struggles, are unable to make it to their crumbling island paradise some summers due to family and financial dramas, all while trying to orchestrate needed repairs on a shoestring via letters and phone calls.

Frankly I find it frustrating to deal with a contractor 30 miles and a state line away, I cannot imagine how it was for them; or, rather, couldn’t if not for Wallace’s way of getting to the point while maintaining a gallows-humor even through the rough patches. There were highs and lows, as is to be expected in a story that spans three decades, and the “end” is bittersweet as so much changes in this village we come to know and love through the story-telling skills of the author.

It’s not just the story of a couple or their home, it’s the story of a way of life, both one that pre-dated them and the one that will follow.

I read this book in spurts. It was easy to devour (just another section more) but I wanted to spread it out. Unlike a series where you know there’s more to come, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the Wallace family or their village, so I would force myself to stop, put down the Kindle, and go to sleep. Now that I have read to the end, I’m left with the feeling of having had a wonderful, virtual vacation on that island, leaving behind good friends and fond memories.

For the rest I’ll just have to subscribe to his tumblr feed: DonWallaceFranceBlog.tumblr.com

***I was provided a digital review copy of The French House for purpose of review. All opinions expressed are my own. The French House was published June 1, 2014, by Sourcebooks.***

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