I was very interested to read this book for several reasons. First of all, I LOVE France. I was a French major in college and still harbor the dream of someday living in a small European village, fully immersing myself in the culture. Until that time comes – I choose to live vicariously through the memoirs of others. Secondly, Marjorie Price is an artist and while I have no artistic talent myself, I truly appreciate the talent in others. I wanted to see how an artist captures life’s experiences in the written word, anticipating beautifully vivid, visual descriptions of the common everyday normal occurrences. And lastly, I greatly enjoy travel memoirs in general (my favorites so far include A Year by the Sea by Joan Anderson and Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach). A Gift from Brittany did not disappoint on any account.
Here is the summary of the book, as it appears on GoodReads.com:
The enchanting memoir of an artist’s liberating sojourn in France during the sixties—and the friendship that transformed her life
While in her late twenties, Marjorie Price leaves the comfort of her Chicago suburb to strike out on her own in Paris and hone her artistic talents. Dazzled by everything French, she falls in love with a volatile French painter and they purchase an old farmhouse in the Breton countryside. When Marjorie’s seemingly idyllic marriage begins to unravel, she forms a friendship with an elderly peasant woman, Jeanne, who is illiterate, has three cows to her name, and has never left the village. Their differences are staggering yet they forge a friendship that transforms one another’s life.
While this is certainly an adequate and concise summary, its brevity does not allow a focus on the beauty of Ms. Price’s language, nor the true depth of friendship formed between these two unlikely women. Ms. Price was an adventuresome youth, even by today’s standards. As a young female graduate in 1960 she decides to head to Paris to spend a few months doing what she loves best: paint. She knows little French and has no contacts, yet she follows her passion to the city that epitomizes art. In 1960 one did not just board a plane and arrive in Europe 8 hours later; at that time the way to travel overseas was ON the sea. Marjorie saved enough money to purchase a ticket on the Queen Elizabeth and after several days of travel arrived at her beloved destination. I LOVE to travel – but I am not sure that I would have the courage to risk sea-sickness to venture to a foreign country in which I could not properly communicate with the natives in order to follow my heart’s desire. I have tremendous respect for Ms. Price’s focus and dedication to following her dream.
After only a very short time in Paris she meets another artist,Yves, and quickly falls in love. After two dates they are sleeping together and in just 6 months they are married. After about 4 years of marriage the couple decides that they need a summer getaway from the hectic Parisian life. They wish to find a place of peace and tranquility which will inspire their painting, and that will allow their 2 year daughter an opportunity to experience the country. Midge’s idea (Yves’s nickname for Marjorie) is a small seaside cottage, but Yves discovers half a hamlet with 7 dilapidated houses in varying states of disrepair and “convinces” her that this is what they need. The couple receives, as a belated wedding gift, money from her father to secure the down payment on the property. It is at this early point in the story that the reader discovers marital problems will soon overshadow this amorous relationship:
“Calm down, Cherie. Someday you’ll thank me.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
“You have to. You have no choice.”
At this point, Yves reminded me that we had been married in France, and under Napoleonic Law, the husband is considered the lieu conjugal. “That means,” he explained with a roguish grin, “a wife is obliged to follow her spouse – me, in our case – wherever he decides to go, anywhere in the world. Whether she likes it or not.”
Midge does follow her husband and makes the best of the situation. Living on dirt floors with no indoor plumbing, she manages to create a lovely home conducive to raising a small child and fostering a serene environment which inspires them both to paint. Again, I could not do what Ms. Price willingly chose to do: I draw the line at no indoor plumbing AND I just don’t think I could overlook the macho Napoleonic attitude — I don’t care how sexy the French accent. In fact, the only fault that I found with this narrative was the hasty development of Midge and Yves relationship. She fell in love with him in 2 dates and the next thing the reader knows they are married, with a child, moving to Brittany to live on the half hamlet that they have purchased with her father’s money even though she has no desire to live there. I wanted more information; the speed with which it all happened seemed unbelievable to me.
Yet…as I read the rest of the book I realized that this was not the relationship to focus upon. It is the relationship between Jeanne, the 70 year old illiterate peasant woman, and Mitch (her pronunciation of Midge) that is the crux of this story – AND Jeanne and Mitch would never have had a relationship if Yves had not been so insistent on their moving to this village in the first place. We needed to quickly introduce the catalyst in order to focus on the true story.
The saying that we will find love in the most unexpected places is most truthful here. On the surface there should be no reason why these two women would ever speak to one another, much less become close friends: one is a young mother on the verge of divorce, the other is an elderly grandmother still in love with her husband; one is an American from the large city of Chicago, the other was born, lives and dies in the same French provincial country town; one is well-educated who has a passion for the arts, the other never attended school, but has tended a working farm her entire life. When these two women first meet they do not even speak the same language, yet over time they learn to confide in one another their most intimate thoughts. How fortunate Mitch was to find such a confidante in her lifetime. The relationship they share is one that many of us long for, and we are privileged to have the opportunity to witness this friendship grow and develop into full maturity.
The beauty of this narrative is greatly enhanced by the beauty of the author’s language. Notice her description of a sunset:
“One evening there was a breathtakingly dramatic sunset. As the sun went down, Danielle played nearby while Yves and I sat side by side on the grass, both of us painting a flaming vermilion and celadon sky suspended over a shimmering meadow reaching all the way to the sea…..Mine was a watercolor that set out to capture a setting sun with a gamut of delicate to brilliant colors, each one laid over another like overlapping plates of glass. Yves had painted with gouache, using hard, jagged edges and clashing colors to achieve a beautiful, dark, and stormy elegy to the last moments of light.” (page 48)
Or this description of dawn:
“As the morning light filtered through the night sky, I set out my watercolors and began to paint while the cows grazed nearby, indifferent to my presence. Dawn unfolded with delicate mauves, beiges, and pale yellows, blending actors gliding soundlessly across a stage.” (page 117)
Or the comparison of the sky from region to the next:
“I had never seen light in quite the same way before I came to the Morbihan. I had never been as acutely aware of its subtleties until I lived year-round at La Salle. The more I got to know the region, the more it inspired me. Unlike the mistral-swept, sun-dominated, unequivocally cobalt skies of the Midi, where the sky was rarely constant. Shifting clouds mirrored the ever-changing seascape as the moon-driven tide prevailed upon the waters to rise and sink and follow its whim. Morning light especially took me by surprise. Fog ruled the early hours and clung to the coast until – or if- the sun managed to break through. Morning haze hugged the meadows, emitting a fluid, silvery green light that filtered through the lingering fog, transforming moist fields into shimmering, verdant expanses…..” (page 192)
I can practically see the canvas painting with the intensity of her words. Absolutely beautiful!
As a final, personal note on this memoir, I loved the way Ms. Price effortlessly wove authentic French expressions through the narrative. This gave the reader the feeling of being in France without the discomfort of not understanding the language. For me, however, a French major of long ago, I was thrilled that I could decipher the language before it was explained. It is nice to know that 4 years of college in a degree that I have never used in the “real” world was not completely wasted.