I don’t read a lot of “women’s fiction,” and this book reminded me why. It’s like the Lifetime Network in book form. Thoughtless characters in ridiculous situations who explain every bit of their inner dialogues without addressing the gaping plot holes or even what anything looks like.
The Summer of France is about a woman. She has a husband who is an uptight, well-muscled accountant. That makes him among the best-described characters in the book. They have two teen-aged twins, a girl who swims a lot and a boy who… I don’t remember what he does. Due to an implausible series of events, the woman finds herself managing a bed and breakfast in southern France, on her own, without experience or the ability to speak French. Her family is there, but they all choose not to help their obviously struggling wife/mother and instead go have sex with French people elsewhere. And she’s like, yeah, that’s cool, nothing I can do about it.
Then, though another implausible series of events, she ends up on the back of a motorcycle in a borrowed full-leather outfit, holding on to a very sexy (but maybe not trustworthy?) Frenchman, in an effort to smuggle a stolen painting into the Krakow museum in Poland. Does it matter how this came about? Only enough to say that she discovered the painting in her B&B and never addressed why she couldn’t smuggle it into a French museum, closer to home. She definitely had to drive to Poland and stay in sexy, fancy hotels because it possibly came from there originally. Possibly.
Despite how asinine I found these characters and the plot, I did finish it (on the beach), so at least it kept me that much engaged.
A trustworthy friend in college recommended Jesus’ Son to me. About 13 years later, I got around to reading it. After wading through the first half or so, I put it aside without a favorable impression. I thought maybe my moment for these stories had passed. Like Bukowski, maybe they seemed more interesting to undergrads. Stories of the gritty side of life that none of us had experienced. As I got older, I got a few glimpses of that grittier world, and I went running in the other direction.
A (different) friend noticed that I left two stars on GoodReads without comment and reached out. Amanda and I met one evening for dinner and talked about the book. What she made me realize is that I tend to want to place myself wholly in the shoes of the main character. Especially with a first-person narrator, I want to live and breathe this personality. I want to feel his choices and the effects of those choices. But that’s maybe not the best way to take Jesus’ Son.
I felt very uncomfortable and vulnerable reading this, which manifested in getting defensive against it. But Amanda helped me realize that this was a very safe way to view this world. I’m not actually there. I’m not actually too stoned to deal with a dangerous situation. I’m not driving a dead body around in my car without brakes. I’m not lost in the woods in a pick-up with some dying bunnies. I’m safe in my room/on the beach/at the coffee shop, just hearing a story about someone else’s life.
Once I could disconnect from the narrator in that way, I enjoyed these stories much more. I finished the book, and I could finally see the poetry in the language, in the images, and in the plot structures. I still don’t wish I knew this narrator in real life. But I appreciate that these stories gave me a glimpse into a world that’s safer viewed from the outside. And I’m grateful that Jesus’ Son and Amanda helped me learn how to read in a new way.
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