Blurb: Oh, how the French love love! For hundreds of years, they have championed themselves as guides to the art de l’amour through their literature, paintings, songs, and cinema. A French man or woman without amorous desire is considered defective, like someone missing the sense of smell or taste. Now revered scholar Marilyn Yalom intimately examines the tenets of this culture’s enduring gospel of romance.
Basing her delightfully erudite findings on her extensive readings of French literature, as well as memories of her personal experiences in la belle France, Yalom explores the many nuances of love as it has evolved over the centuries, from the Middle Ages to the present. Following along, step-by-step, on her romance-tinged literary detective hunt, the reader discovers how the French invented love, how they have kept it vibrant for more than nine centuries, what is unique in the French love experience, and what is universal.
Review: So I was led astray by the title of this book How the French Invented Love–doesn’t that suggest a sociological explanation of the significance of love in French culture? Now of course, love is important in every culture. But to my romantic American Francophile mind, the French seem to have cornered the market on love. Stereotype or not, it seems to me that the French, both throughout history and today, are much more devoted to the pleasures of love. I was expecting a sociological exploration of this belief. I wanted to learn: why do we associate the French so strongly with love? is the French emphasis on love fact or fiction? how do the French treat love differently from other cultures?
Unfortunately, this book somewhat broaches these questions but not sociologically. Rather, Yalom, who writes both congenially and informatively, takes us on a sweeping adventure through French love literature. She begins with the tragic story of Abelard and Heloise, whom she names the “patron saints” of French love. From there we discuss Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian romances and his focus on courtly love before moving to the invention of gallantry during the reign of Sun King Louis XIV. Then we investigate the Romantics’ fixation/fascination on love as the absolute purpose of life and finally we explore the more modern cynicism toward love as found in Proust and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Yalom does not limit herself to heterosexual love either–lesbian and gay relationships are well-covered. What I found most interesting about this chronological expedition through French literature was the oscillation between periods of romantic attitudes toward love followed by periods of jaded attitudes toward love. A lot of French love literature is motivated by backlash toward these ideals.
While this book left me with a long list of French love stories to seek out, I didn’t get the answer to my most pressing questions: do the French actually love differently? and if they do, why? This omission was somewhat assuaged by Yalom’s inclusion of several personal anecdotes on French love. She tells charming real life stories of French lovers that are so utterly French in character that I can’t help but believe that l’amour à la française is not merely imagined but truly exists.
4 out of 5 stars
Here’s a LONG list of French works focused on love that Yalom has inspired me to read as soon as possible:
The Lais of Marie de France
The Princesse de Clèves
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Claudine at School
Cyrano De Bergerac
Remembrance of Things Past: Volume I – Swann’s Way & Within a Budding Grove
So obviously that list suggests that you probably shouldn’t pick this book up if you’re not looking to add even MORE books to your already towering to-be-read pile. The Francophile in me, however, can’t wait.