My Life in France by Julia Child (with Alex Prud'homme)

Dec 21, 2015

I like my yearly reading goals to be a nice mix of challenging and entertaining. As awesome as it would be to be really ambitious and set my sights high, I know if I load up my list with only dense, heavy works, I'll burn out very quickly and lose the joy of reading. So that is why I always include a few goals that are purely for fun.

"Read a food memoir" was one of the fun goals this year. I originally planned on reading Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist, but when our library didn't own a copy, I switched to My Life in France.
Before picking it up, I had the very vaguest knowledge of Julia Child. I knew she was an American with a very vibrant personality who liked to cook French food. That was about it. But I soon discovered that while I was entirely accurate with my bare bones knowledge, it's the details that have made millions of people fall in love with her over the last fifty years.

The memoir begins in 1948 when Julia and Paul Child move to France. Paul works for the government and spent quite a bit of time in France during WWII. Julia has never been to France and does not speak French, but she is game to try just about any adventure. Julia is thirty six years old and has done very little cooking (French or otherwise) up to that point in her life, but she soon falls in love with French food and is determined to learn the French style of cooking. She takes many classes at Le Cordon Bleu and eventually passes the official test and becomes a graduate of the school.

From there, she begins to teach classes of her own and eventually ends up collaborating with two French women on a cookbook that aims to teach Americans the French art of cooking. After a decade of testing, tweaking, and writing, the cookbook is finally published in 1961, which happens to be about the same time that television is taking off in the United States. Julia films a few how-to cooking shows to go along with the book, and they are very well received and make her into something of an international celebrity.

I generally consider food memoirs to be fairly light reads comprised of short, comfortable essays and interspersed with tantalizing recipes, but My Life in France was a little more substantive than that and really focused on the minute details of Julia Child's life and didn't include any recipes. After only a few pages of reading, I switched to the audio version. There was just too much French in the book for this non-French speaker to muddle through. I wanted to be able to hear the names of the people, places, and recipes that were a part of Julia's life.

From the very beginning, I was inspired by Julia's zest for life. Upon arriving in France, she launches herself into French culture and customs (she can't fathom why some expats want to live with a bunch of other Americans instead of getting the full French experience). She diligently studies the language (and practices every chance she can get). Once she decides she wants to learn how to cook, she jumps in with both feet.

She's like that with everything. One time they're in England and choke down a terrible meal. She says, "It was truly horrible to eat but a wonderful cultural experience." She seems to always be looking for the silver lining. When Paul gets transferred to Marseille, she embraces the quiet change of pace. When one publisher rejects their book, she's relieved because she doesn't think it would have been a good fit anyway. When a recipe fails, she's thrilled at the process of trial and error.

For many years, she and Paul own a quiet little cottage outside Provence that they name La Peetch. When Paul's health begins to decline, Julia decides it's time to let it go. When someone asks her if she will miss it, she says, "I've always felt that when I'm done with something I just walk away from it--fin!" She just expects life to be enjoyable and exciting, and it doesn't disappoint.

One of the really interesting things about this book was catching a glimpse at the collaborative writing process in the 1960's. Julia writes Mastering the Art of French Cooking with two friends, Simca and Louisette (although Louisette doesn't contribute as much by the end). For much of the book-writing process, they don't live in the same city (and, at times, not even the same country), and so all of their correspondence happens through letters. Julia talks about "firing off" letters back and forth to each other, but I had to wonder how quickly you can fire off anything if you have an ocean between you? In this day, when you could email each other back and forth a hundred times in one day, the thought of asking a question or making a suggestion and not getting a response back for several days seemed indescribably tedious. I have to wonder if this was part of the reason the book took them a whole decade to write (not that I'm forgetting that it's 750 pages long and contains hundreds of fool-proof recipes). It's just such a different time we live in.

But the thing I loved the very most about this book was learning that Julia Child didn't settle into her true passion until she was close to forty years old. I don't know why, but I always worry that I'm not going to have enough time in my life to do everything I want to do. Sometimes I think I'm probably already too old to tackle something new. Reading this made me realize that the sky is still the limit for me. Julia didn't even know how to cook until she was 37 years old, but ten years later she had made herself an authority on the subject.

Even though I ended up listening instead of reading, I kept the book because it contains dozens of photos (including the scandalous bathtub photo that she and Paul used for their Valentine's cards) that contributed so much to giving a very candid look at Julia's life. Out of curiosity, I also had to look up Julia's early cooking videos, which were wonderfully unedited and unscripted (although I think her voice might drive me batty if I had to listen to it for very long at a time). And finally, I've bumped up Julie and Julia on my list of must-watch movies, and I'm planning to follow through over the Christmas break. In short, I just can't get enough of this intelligent, flamboyant, life-loving person.


  1. Isn't this book so delightful! I just love Julia and Paul's relationship. After listening to this book I went to their little house in Georgetown and took photos.

    1. Are you serious? That's awesome. Did you post any of the photos on your blog? I want to see them.


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