‘Petite Anglaise’ by Catherine Sanderson

PetiteAnglaise

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.

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7 thoughts on “‘Petite Anglaise’ by Catherine Sanderson

  1. With all due respect…four stars? Can you be serious? I read this book and hated it. Couldn’t stand how she painted everything with a slant and outwardly admitted to lying and beefing up all of her blog entries to garner audience attention.
    She’s just as bad as James Fey pandering his make believe life. She did the SAME thing. Gag.

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  2. Kristy, yep, four stars — she can write. I wasn’t judging it on whether it was a “true” representation of her life, simply on whether the book kept me entertained (it did) and whether the narrative worked (it did). If she beefed up her blog entries, so what? As for the “slant”, it’s a memoir — ALL memoirs are slanted.

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  3. Hmmm. I added this one to my wishlist based on “blog turned memoir” but I didn’t know about the affair part. While I wouldn’t judge anyone for it, it’s not what I thought it was about. I thought it was more about her love affair with France. I’ll have to think about it.

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  4. Just curious, Kim: Do you read her blog? I’ve been following it for years now. I’m not sure I would’ve picked up let alone enjoyed this book if I hadn’t been. It raises some interesting questions about how and why we develop a blog persona, and it’s a very writerly instinct of hers to mould her entries for effect. (I don’t think she ever misrepresented herself, nor do we as blog readers have the right to hold her to any standard – be it of truth, quality, consistency, what you will.) I’m of the same two minds as you, Kim, but I think the honesty and self-awareness put “shallow” in perspective. She IS a good writer.

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  5. Isabella, I read the blog in the very early days (before she had her “affair”) but stopped reading it when I got a new computer and lost all my bookmarks (back in the days before I used bloglines/rss readers). I guess I just wasn’t interested enough to hunt her out again. But I think I probably enjoyed the book because I found out about all the stuff that happened when I stopped reading the blog.

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