The One with Wise French Adults

Pamela Druckerman, There Are No Grown-ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story (2018)

I bought this book (at a train station, of all places) because I was intrigued. The 40s are not an age many people write about. Coming-of-age novels are about twenty-somethings, right? I can’t think of many novels or movies heroines that are in that age bracket (I hate this term). And now that (personal disclosure alert) I have reached the said bracket, I was looking for some guidance, some empathy, or some humor about its particular challenges. I did find all three, so the book did the job, right? It’s a bit of a mixed bag, and as many readers on Goodreads have been rather harsh in their reviews, I’m inclined to defend it.

Pamela Druckerman is well known for singing the praise of French education to anxious American mothers. I haven’t read that particular book (Bringing up Bébé), I just leafed through it. I tend to be too harsh with books that take the cultural traits of some people of a particular (exotic) country and generalize it, because it’s way too easy to find counter examples. Perhaps I’m getting mellower, but I enjoyed this one.

I expected a book about how well French women do their forties (and get fat in the process? no, Druckerman advocates for wisdom and balance instead), I didn’t expect the memoir-ish side of the book. The author comes from a Jewish family in Florida, who chose to keep her away from harsh realities (especially in social interactions) while she was growing up, so that she later felt that the truth was always escaping her. She chose the right career for this proclivity (journalism), and also married a man who seemed to provide all the answers to her questions. I really enjoyed the way she explained her upbringing and wrote about her vulnerabilities. I didn’t relate to her particular anxiety, but I really felt for her.

The French women she talks about are very privileged, as she seems to mainly socialize with the Parisian upper-middle class and expat crowd, but she really nails down some of the cultural traits of my fellow country people, and it was good fun, and highlighted some aspects of the American culture that remain very foreign to me. Here’s the time when she was asked to deliver a commencement speech at a private university in Paris:

French universities usually don’t even have a ceremony; they just mail your diploma. A professor at one of the top schools in Paris tells me that she once showed her class Steve Jobs’s 2005 commencement speech at Stanford. Jobs describes how he dropped out of college and studies calligraphy, which seemed pointless at the time but later became the basis for the font of Apple computers. He concludes that when you follow your passion, all your strange choices gradually make sense, and the great narrative of your life emerges. Her French students were unmoved by the speech, calling it “completely disconnected from reality” and “so Californian”.

That puts me in a tricky spot. The whole point of a commencement speech is to say something encouraging. Most of the ones I watch boil down to: Yes you can. Here’s how. But I’ll be in Paris, speaking to a graduating class that’s only a quarter American […]. If I say something too uplifting, I’ll seem deluded. The message of a French commencement speech would probably be: No you can’t. It’s not possible. Don’t even try.

It’s not a ground-breaking book, but it’s entertaining, moving and a quick read, proving that 40-something people are definitely fun to be around!

5 thoughts on “The One with Wise French Adults

  1. Ha ha ha, yes, having experienced both the English and the French school system for my boys, I can vouch for the difference. Here in the UK the teachers were constantly encouraging: ‘Yes, that is so nearly correct, try a little bit harder and I’m sure you’ll get it right etc.’ In France: ‘You got it wrong again. How many more times do I need to tell you?’

  2. Pingback: The One about the Second Life of Florida’s Monica Lewinsky | Smithereens

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