Fiction – hardcover; Penguin; 340 pages; 2008.
Petite Anglaise is one of those books that first started life as a blog — the refreshingly well written and entertaining Petite Anglaise — except this is not a collection of posts strung together to form a disjointed narrative. Instead it’s a proper memoir that charts Catherine Sanderson’s life in Paris as an expat Brit.
Despite its (not particularly attractive) chick-lit cover, the story deals with some fairly weighty subject matter, not the least Catherine’s decision to leave her long-term partner (dubbed Mr Frog) and the father of her child (dubbed Tadpole), because she’d embarked on an affair with someone who left comments on her blog! Saucy, no?
But the book also charts a love affair with Paris, a city that Catherine became obsessed about when she was an 11-year-old school girl in Yorkshire.
France. Here was a destination to bend my running steps towards; a hook to hang my daydreams on; so alluring, so exotic, so tantalizingly close. No matter that school French lessons consisted of little more than endlessly rehearsed role plays and verb conjugations. No matter that my first extended stay on French soil would not take place for another six agonizing years. As I sat in a numbered booth in the school language lab, cumbersome headphones blocking out the English sounds of the world around me, I closed my eyes and pretended I was actually there. I yearned to taste the 200 grams of pâté I was instructed to buy in the grocer’s shop; to visit the church or the town hall after quizzing a passer-by — invariably an elderly man wearing a beret — for directions. ‘Ecoutez, puis répétz!’ said the voice on the crackling tape at the start of every exercise. ‘Listen, then dream’ would have been more apt. I’d fallen hopelessly, irrationally, in love with the French language and, by extension, with France. And I’m at a loss to explain why, even now.
After a stint as an exchange student and later as an English assistante at a lycee in Normandy — where she acquires her first French boyfriend — it seems Catherine’s path is set. A teaching job at the Sorbonne Nouvelle follows and before long Catherine is living in the City of Light, where she meets Mr Frog and settles down with him. But seven years later, with a one-year-old child, the dream is fading: Mr Frog works long hours and Catherine, a secretary for an English company, is bored at work and stressed at home.
She starts a blog — “a harmless hobby…my virtual playground” — to capture some “arch observations about life in Paris”. But when her posts become more personal — confessing that her partner does not want to marry her, for instance — her online popularity grows substantially and she gains a worldwide audience.
Little did I know I had just unleashed a force which, within less than a year, would turn my life, and the lives of those dearest to me, inside out.
As much as I enjoyed this book — I raced through it in the space of a cold, wet weekend, unable to tear my eyes away from it — I have to admit that I’m in two minds about the author. I’m not sure if she’s so shallow that she’ll resort to almost anything for publicity (anonymous or not), or if she is someone to admire because she was focused and determined enough to chase a dream. But what I do know is this: she is a superb writer. Her effortless prose style is by turns witty and heartbreakingly sad. She’s painfully honest throughout, baring herself open in such a way that you feel voyeuristic reading her thoughts. The narrative trots along at a fair old pace and there’s enough “hooks” to keep you reading on to see what might happen next.
Interestingly enough, after Catherine finished this book and before it was published, she was fired by the accountancy firm where she worked for blogging about life in the office. She went on to win her case, and has now embarked on a writing career. Her first novel is due for publication next year.