The House in France

Okay, so this is not a novel, but a memoir by travel journalist Gully Wells which I simply had to include in the line-up because the house in question exudes such perfect South-of-Franceness that it evokes the very essence of fantasies about that corner of the Mediterranean.  It is also a very funny, very warm and entertaining book about a family that by any rights ought to be described as highly dysfunction but become here so indulged and idealised and drawn in technicolour that they are almost lovable. It began by reminding me of Françoise Sagan’s great classic coming-of-age novel, Bonjour Tristesse, without the sadness, but most of all it reminded me of Jeannette Walls comic memoir of dysfunction, The Glass Castle. It left me with the same feeling of having been deceptively entertained by people I would probably have crossed the street to avoid.

It took me a while to figure out that this is essentially an extended love letter to the kind of mother that most of us might run a mile from. Dee Wells was an American journalist transplanted to England, the victim herself of a deeply unhappy family, who had learned to use her foul, witty, angry mouth to protect and elevate herself above the common herd. She was clearly one of those very amusing people who pride themselves on being able to take a chunk out of just about any contender. But she was also a lot of manic fun, as some people living on the edge can manage to be. When Gully Wells’ first great love turns out to be Martin Amis, you can see the pattern of her mother repeated in adolescent male form – fiercely clever, determined, charming, utterly self-centred, witty, cutting, superior. But there was clearly some sort of seriously dark rage lurking in Dee Wells that nothing really assuaged. She told her daughter, aged about 15, that ‘she had never found a shrink as smart as she was. So what was the point?’ Dee Wells’ first marriage, which resulted in Gully, was over in five years, and then she ran into the Oxford philosopher and academic, ‘Freddie’ A. J. Ayer, and became determined to marry him. Freddie had other plans involving evasion. He was a charming, amusing womaniser with little interest or penetration into the delicate feelings of others. Not an unkind man by any means, but a distracted one, following his own star and steadfastly oblivious.

Gully’s mother eventually lassoed him and reined him in, and for Gully at least there was a halcyon period with her ferocious mother, her adored stepfather and soon a baby brother, Nick, spending their summers in their house in France. Given that her mother had a marked preference for girls, and little sense of balance or self-restraint, Nick was clearly the fall guy for his parents’ emotional issues, although Gully is insistent that he was deeply loved by his father. But there are very different trajectories at stake, as Gully grows up fun-loving, passionate, smart, headed for Oxford and then America, and Nick turns to drugs and truancy, eventually abandoned by both parents when they divorce.

As with any memoir, the first half of this book is by far the best. Families make for such tight-knit narratives, a crucible of emotional forces all acting upon one another in entangled but fascinating patterns, that when the moment comes for the constellation to implode, each element is fired off on its own picaresque journey that can seem meandering and unstructured by comparison. Plus, Gully’s unshakeable adoration for her family, her longing to smooth over every anecdote with the sweet honey of compassion, can sometimes seem at odds with some of the dreadful things that are happening. This is a beautifully written book, and an extremely funny one. At times it made me think of P. G. Wodehouse’s characters, all transposed to the swinging sixties and unable to leave the ideology of free love behind. But the refusal of the narrator to address the damaging implications of her parents’ behaviour can sometimes work against the reader’s sympathy. There is a risk of reacting with the stark recognition that here are a bunch of rich, bohemian types, acting faithlessly and foolishly with a stolid disregard for consequences. That other perspective lurks persistently in the second half of the book, but it isn’t at all what Gully Wells wants people to see.

I ended up wondering whether this is the place where the cultures of America and Britain part ways most noticeably. It seems to me that Americans privilege the ability to make the best of things, to see the positive in any situation and to count blessings no matter what. The British privilege emotional honesty and astute judgement; we like to see a survivor, but need to know exactly what has been survived before giving our unqualified support. We admire not the glorious winner who rises above the others, but the underdog who cheerily refuses to give in. But it’s hard to know whether Gully Wells’ idealisation of her family is due to her own nature, her cultural inheritance, or her survival skills. In any case, if you liked The Glass Castle, I would have said this was definitely a worthy successor, and in any case a well-written account of life in a rich seam of mid-20th century writers and thinkers

11 thoughts on “The House in France

  1. Why does this make me think about ‘My Family and Other Animals’? Perhaps because of what you said about Gully’s ‘longing to smooth over every anecdote with the sweet honey of compassion, can sometimes seem at odds with some of the dreadful things that are happening’. I always feel that if I looked too deeply into the Durrell book, which I love, I would be forced to recognise that Gerald was lucky to survive some of the things that are happening as unscathed as he apparently did.

    • Alex, I’m sure it’s a good call to think of My Family and Other Animals as an analogous sort of book here. And I do agree with you – not at all sure the Durrells were lovely people! I am always longing to know exactly how much ‘scathing’ took place…

  2. The title and the cover had me thinking ‘Oh no…’ (and do I spy a quote on the front by Peter Mayle as well) but actually it sounds much better than that.

    I suppose it’s hard to look at your parents objectively and hold them very publicly accountable for their mistakes, especially if they are still alive (or her brother too). It’s a thin line sometimes between understanding why someone did something and accepting what they did rather than condeming it, isn’t it? And all the humour, does that make it an uncomfortable read ultimately as much as the smoothing over?

    • Helen, I have to confess that the humour is sometimes uncomfortable. And the idealisation is occasionally a little icky, like the time when Gully rings her stepfather, Freddy, in hospital after a prostate operation (he’s 70) and she’s over the moon to find out he picked up one of the nurses to test the, ahem, efficiency of his surgery. I believe the term ‘oversharing’ was developed for just such moments! Her mother really dislikes the man she married, but although she tells us this, she never comments on it, which well, you might think she would. But, there is a lot that is very amusing in the book, and it’s always interesting to see how writers treat their families.

  3. I would love to read this, and not just because I am in a house in France myself — I’m fascinated by those mid 20th century thinkers, my parents’ generation, I suppose. I’m also interested in what you say about her desire to smooth over the obviously disturbing elements. If she hadn’t, I suppose this would have become a ‘misery memoir’, which is a genre I avoid.

    • Oh Harriet, DO read it as I would really like to know what you make of it. I think there is a happy medium between the misery memoir and the idealisation that Gully Wells sometimes seems to indulge in, but that doesn’t make this any less interesting, after all.

  4. Pingback: Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland

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