A Year in Merde tells the story of Paul West, a twenty-seven-year-old Brit brought to Paris by a French company to open a chain of tearooms. Soon enough, he finds himself juggling a group of grumbling French employees, a treacherous Parisian boss, and a succession of lusty girlfriends (one of whom happens to be the boss¿s morally challenged daughter). He soon becomes immersed in the contradictions of French culture: the French are not all cheese-eating surrender monkeys, though they do eat a lot of smelly cheese, and they are still in shock at having been stupid enough to sell Louisiana, thus losing the chance to make French the global language. The book also reveals the secrets of how to get the best out of the grumpiest Parisian waiter, how to survive a French business meeting, and how not to buy a house in the French countryside.
Mr. Clarke went to Paris as a young man to advise a company that wanted to create tea shops in a country of coffee drinkers. That he couldn't speak French beyond the basic greeting didn't get in the way of him deriding the French who had a better grasp of English. He had a very high opinion of his abilities in bed and in a span of less than one year, managed to leave the hotel he lived in and move into no less than 4 women's apartments, starting with his boss's daughter. Another thing that annoyed him greatly about Paris was the fact that he always found dog poop to step in and soil his shoes. The only reason I finished the book was because I hoped to find he embraced the French way of life but I was disappointed.
The fact that this man has apparently published a series of books about his exploits and experiences in Paris makes me believe that the British may never get over themselves.
There were some laugh out loud moments and this was a pretty quick read. The plot was okay, somewhat disappearing with Paul's quest for French woman.
Recommended only if you need something to take your mind off impending dental surgery.
Besides being a humorous account of French assimilation, A Year in the Merde is also an insightful look at how the French view British and American citizens. Clarke is especially discerning when recounting the start of the American led Iraq war.
As the inside flap of the book says, “This book is for everyone who can never quite decide whether they love – or love to hate – the French”.
This was a really fun read for me, a bilingual French-Canadian who works in a place where Canadian descendants of both the British and the French converge and must work together. Canada may not exactly replicate either British or French culture, but there are similarities.
For much of this novel, though, I kept forgetting it was a novel and kept reading it as though it were a memoir. I don't think it made much of a difference in level of enjoyment. But it does perhaps speak to a moderate lack of plot, especially for the first half or more of the book. It was amusing nonetheless.
We were in France at the start of September and the phrase la rentrée was everywhere. We’d gathered that it signified the equivalent of our Back to School, with added intensity gained from the fact that an awful lot of enterprises shut down for summer holidays and open again at rentrée. But this book explained it from the point of view of someone working in Paris, and certainly enriched our grasp of its meaning – a time for resolutions and new beginnings, etc.
Then there was the mysterious siren we heard exactly at midday in a small village during our walk on the Loire. Completely mystifying until – in [Merde actually] – we learned that at midday on a certain day every month all the airraid sirens of France have a practice run and are completely ignored by everyone except ignorant tourists. (We can vouch for the ignoring bit.)
I was confirmed in my impression that one asks for un carafe d’eau rather than simply de l’eau at a cafe unless one wants to pay for mineral water.
Apart from these useful snippets of information, and interesting bits of language artfully disguised as comedy, the book is a well-executed romp. I don’t plan to read the others, but if you’re travelling to France you could do a lot worse by way of preparatory or companionable reading.
This is a “true story” of one Brit’s experiences working for a French company in Paris in 2002-2003. Paul West is hired to open a chain of “typical” English tearooms in Paris. We quickly learn that he barely understands, let alone speaks French, he’s saddled with a team that isn’t at all enthusiastic about working on the project, and he can’t even seem to order a normal size cup of coffee. Still he manages to luck into a pretty good living situation – rooming with his boss’s daughter in subsidized student housing. As he traverses the streets of Paris and cultural nuances of the French, he soon finds himself stepping in the “merde” … both literally and figuratively.
I was hoping for a Peter Mayle style, but was disappointed. Clarke certainly tackles the French political climate, the people’s attitudes towards work, food and/or sex, the unions, and the love/hate relationship with all things English. There are some humorous scenes, but nothing laugh-out-loud funny. John Lee does a great job with the various characters and their differing accents. Three stars is a little generous, but (*shrugs with arms extended, palm up*) it did remind me of what I love (and hate) about France.