Archive for the ‘David Lebovitz’ Category

I had high hopes for The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz.  On paper, it sounded like just the book for me: when have I ever turned down an ex-pat memoir about life in Paris?  Including recipes usually just sweetens the deal.  Not so this time.

Lebovitz is a pastry chef, which means that most of the recipes in this memoir (because it’s impossible to write a Paris-based memoir without recipes these days) are for sweets.  His constant discussion of chocolate and other sweets weren’t fascinating enough to draw me, a savoury rather than sweet girl, in.  The best food writers (think Nigel Slater) can overcome any reader’s preferences with effortless grace.  Lebovitz was never once able to make me share his passion for marshmallows or macarons.  That said, the recipes are clear and succinct and probably the best parts of the book, even though I wasn’t intrigued enough to try any of them.

I think what bothered me most about was the sheer arrogance Lebovitz displayed by moving to Paris without speaking French or even trying to understand the culture before arriving.  Yes, he repeatedly chides ignorant American readers against coming to France and pulling an “Ugly American” – expecting to speak English and receive American-style service and deference.  But that doesn’t stop him from doing the same and then adopting a kind of smug amusement as the quaintly rigid ways of the French.  They trim green beans! (don’t most people?)  They expect you to wear real clothes – not sweats! – when appearing in public! (like most civilised societies)  And don’t even get him started on the etiquette surrounding any kind of shopping!  I could have understood some naïveté initially but it is sustained throughout the book and, after a while, it grates.

There were some unintentionally hilarious moments, such as this quote:  “Aside from our ability to form ourselves into nice straight lines in service-oriented situations, one of the most enduring traits of Americans is our ability to be self-deprecating and laugh at our foibles” (p. 77-78).  If you’d asked me to name nations that were good at queuing, I can assure you America would not have been top of my list.  Same goes for their ability to laugh at themselves, both as individuals and, especially, as a nation.  These traits are typically, and with some reason, ascribed to the British and, to some extent, other mild-mannered members of the Commonwealth with self-esteem issues.

None of this was helped by the sheer ugliness of the hardcover edition I borrowed from my library.  The chosen typefaces (and there were several) clashed horribly with one another and gave the book a dated, 1990s appearance.  Considering that it was only published in 2009, this is inexcusable.  The cover design is beautiful; it’s a shame that the same kind of aesthetic didn’t extend to the book’s interior. 

A great disappointment.  Perhaps this is best suited to those who haven’t read much about Paris previously but for those familiar with the city and its sights and customs it is a tedious waste of time and effort.  Much better to reread the delightful and thoughtful Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik or new favourite Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard.

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