Never trust a book by its cover. After reading the line on the front of Emma Beddington's memoir, I thought it was about trying and failing to become French - frothy, witty, insightful, I thought, just what I need as a break from my day job writing about a 700-year-old prison.
And it is all those things - the sections where teenage Emma is kicking against her childhood in nice middle-class Yorkshire rang very true. And her recollections of life as an assistante in Normandy took me straight back to my time as a student at the Sorbonne and the foyer where I spent one lovely summer, and Lille where it rained non-stop for three months outside my creepy suburban lodgings and where I won a prize for the unbeatable awfulness of my experience. Then there's her love of cakes - how could I not identify? And the delight she gets from language.
But it is also a book that must have taken an enormous amount of courage to write, since it also covers the ten years following the death of Emma's mother in an horrific accident when fragile Emma with her partner, Olivier, a toddler Theo, baby Louis and a job she hates, ricochet from London to Paris to London to Brussels as she tries to fight her way out of her grief. In the midst of her loving family she becomes increasingly isolated and the more she thinks France is the answer (it so is not), the further adrift she becomes.
All through, Olivier is kind, patient and supportive until, at last, even he can do no more and then, finally, slowly, alone, she starts to come back to life. Part of that process is the acclaimed blog belgianwaffling.com
This is a searingly honest book, and the writer Emma is never self-pitying or victimy even when the Emma on the page is both. It is funny and witty, sad and painful; in places exasperating and others so full of the miracles of love and compassion it is a wonder. And yes, I cried through most of it - but in A Good Way.
If I'd known all this before I started, I might not have read this book - I was looking for frothy wit after all - and that would have been a shame, because through Emma's ability to bring insight and self-awareness into her closed-off world, I learned so much about grief, the struggle to find oneself and, yes, why I'm not French either.