Reviews of my favorite books written by expatriates, journalists, and diplomats on what it's really like to live abroad

Friday, September 4, 2009

Book Review: French Dirt - The Story of a Garden in the South of France by Richard Goodman

The painting on this book's cover is absolutely marvelous, and sums up what Northern gardeners imagine when we have Mediterranean fantasies. A line of tall cypress lead to a red-tile-roofed villa. All around are grape vines, yellowed-hills, and in the foreground a gardener crouched down next to his watering can, tending to a row of vegetables grown huge in the strong sun.

The book was well reviewed by the literary establishment. But, I think not by anyone who's actually passionate about gardening. It's really a book for New Yorkers. A pleasant diversion for people who have never gardened and probably never will in the future. You'll find passionate descriptions of Richard's excitement about his garden, the first of his adult life, but precious little actual information on the specifics of gardening. So, on that front, it's a wash.

However, there's one bit I really do like. Richard describes how tough it is to get to know the locals beyond a polite smile. French people don't rush to include new neighbors - foreign or not - in their daily lives. There's a natural insularity and slight standoffishness that's natural to many cultures (I've experienced it in England but not Scotland. In Croatia, but not Serbia.)

Richard broke through this wall unexpectedly, when, needing money, he went to work as an unskilled laborer for a few local farmers. Most well-to-do retirees living in foreign countries will never discover that trick and they'll be lonelier for it. (In fact most living abroad books talk about the opposite, getting to know locals by cozying up to one's own hired help.)

In summary, this isn't a bad little book, as long as you're not expecting serious information about gardening. And, that cover is a delightful thing to display face-out on your bookshelf. I happen to own a full-blown poster of it, left over from a bookstore promotion, and I thank my lucky stars daily.

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