January 21, 2013

book one: dreaming in french

My "Year of Reading" challenge is off to a great start so far! I have made time for reading most days and I have finished a few books so far. It feels really, really good to be making reading an important part of my days again. I can already sense the difference it is making in my life to spend that extra time with words each day. Reading fuels my imagination, my vocabulary, my passion for writing, and more. 

My first book of the year was Dreaming in French by Megan McAndrew. I tried not to put pressure on the choice of which would be my first book of the New Year. I tried not to deliberate too long or let my decision-making derail actual forward motion towards my goal. This book had come onto my radar many times since it came out in 2009, and the title and cover always caught my eye. When I found it on sale as a bargain book at an independent bookstore this past year, that was the last sign I needed that the book should be mine. And part of what I love about the whole pursuit of reading is that you often come across something very different from what you were expecting as you make your way through the pages. Whatever deliberation I had allowed myself in the end took a lovely turn towards many opposite qualities than I had expected.
I have long-fostered a guilty-pleasure appreciation for certain "chick lit" books. I think this stems from my days working in bookstores, admiring all the adorable fashion-conscious covers that would make their way from box to cart to shelf. When I have felt bogged down by my other reading sometimes-tedious classical works or super-hipster avant-garde literary works, I will often grant myself a "break" from all that work and indulge in something lighter. I have found that I cannot turn off my discernment altogether - I have attempted several books in the "chick lit" category that do not motivate me to continue past a couple of pages, whether due to writing quality or subject. But I have found a vein that I tend to love, perhaps defined as literary equivalents of one of my favorite TV guilty pleasures, "Gossip Girl." I like a novel that is witty and worldly but still romantic and feminine, peppered with fashion or other brilliant worlds to nurture all of the aesthetics I love. (Some examples: The Little Lady Agency, Bergdorf Blondes, The Nanny Diaries... forgive me if these are all outdated, I have not been keeping up with this category so well in recent years!) 

All this to say merely that I thought that Dreaming in French might fit this category, only to discover upon reading that this could NOT be further from the truth! The cover of the book is actually one of my few critiques. While it is a cute, charming cover that makes me want to hop immediately on a plane to Paris to join those fabulous girls for a cup of tea, it could not possibly represent the contents of the books any less. This is a sophisticated and very literary novel, a coming of age story beautifully written in first person, like an eloquent memoir. And while much of Charlotte's (the narrator's) story does take place against the backdrop of 1970's/1980's Paris, her story explores so many more complex themes and experiences. Paris is a character in her story, similar to her father or mother or sister or best friend. But New York City is also a character in her story, as well as Poland and the Southern US. The title, however, fits the book even more perfectly than I'd expected.
What I loved about this book was McAndrews' writing. The prose is sincere without indulging in overwrought sentimentality, and Charlotte's voice as narrator is wry and wise and really honest, even when it can be uncomfortable. I learned some things about Paris and the other fascinating places Charlotte travels, and I cared deeply about Charlotte as a character, as well as her family, which as a writer is one of the most inspiring achievements ever. But what surprised me from page to page was the eloquence of the writing. Sometimes I could acknowledge that I was less engaged with a specific portion of the story, but McAndrews' words kept me no less riveted - no skimming this one. She articulates beautifully the journey of growing older, discovering who you are, making mistakes at times and also honoring the thread of yourself that runs throughout. 

There are so many lines and passages I adored, but I was especially charmed by the book's ending (another feat I so admire in good writing!). I don't think that anything I am sharing here is a spoiler, but if you are interested in reading the book, you might want to skip this next quote!
"I had just turned thirty... It felt like a fine age for a woman, an age of dignity and possibility. It had happened almost by stealth, this assumption of womanhood, like a mantle falling gently but firmly about my shoulders. And so I wore it, even as I knew every woman's secret, that the girl still lives inside you, surprising you at odd moments; in the middle of the night, when you wake up and wonder if your mother has come home yet, or at a party, as you stand, a little self-conscious at the edge of the floor, your foot tapping to the music, hoping that you look all right, that no one can tell you're nervous, that someone  will notice you and ask you to dance." -Megan McAndrews, Dreaming in French 
Has it been a "Year of Reading" for you so far?? I hope it has. I have loved hearing from a few of you on what books you have read or will read next - please keep sharing! We all have to meet our next favorite books somehow, and often they come to us through recommendations, whether in person or through merchandising, reviews, etc.  I hope that you will share your favorites with me, and perhaps they might, in turn, become my favorites, too!?


  1. This looks like a really good book! I so wish I had time to read!


  2. I adore you Catherine. You are now officially my most favorite writer and blogger ever. This makes me cry because I swear its like your in my mind bringing out the real me and who I truly want to become, your like the guardian angel of my mind.

    This book sounds so extraordinary. You convinced me to read it, I'm going to have to buy this one. =) I have about 32 books I hope to read this year.. like War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy, One Day by David Nicholls, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and so much more. This post just made my whole week a lot better. It is so nice to read a blog from a local writer who expresses themselves so beautifully. God bless you!

  3. Have you read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern yet? Her descriptive writing reminded me a lot of yours...