How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance
paperback, 368 pages
a review copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours
Marilyn Yalom is a scholar and the author of such works as A History of the Wife and A History of the Breast, but How the French Invented Love is more playful than academic in its deconstruction of love in life and literature, although it is extremely well researched. This tone of this book is both personal and engaging--even entrancing. Yalom takes the reader on a nine-hundred year tour of passion and romance, using both literature and anecdote to illustrate the French obsession with romantic (and sensual) love.
There are many pleasures to be found in Yalom's history of love, and I don't know whether to recommend reading slowly and savoring each one, or consuming the entire book quickly, which I how I read How the French Invented Love.
This is one of those books that will lead you to more books--or remind you of books that you've loved, and may need to reread. One of my favorite chapters in How the French Invented Love is the one about Madame Bovary, in which Yalom describes reading Flaubert's novel at three different times in her life, and how each reading fostered a different interpretation. Of course three readings of Madame Bovary do not suffice for a novel Yalom calls "a consummate work of art."
Yalom begins her book with the story of Abelard and Heloise, who were lovers, then secretly married, then separated after Abelard was attacked and emasculated by friends of Heloise's uncle. The story of this lifelong love, briefly consummated, then continued through a long separation, grips the reader's attention. Yalom is expert in finding the examples--literary or anecdotal--that exemplify French love throughout the ages.
Yalom's immersion in French history, literature, and culture allows her to seamlessly blend literary analysis, French history, and personal anecdote. She has a way of discussing both fictional characters and great novelists as if they are intimate friends. And her synopses of novels usually end with cliffhangers--and an admonition to read the novel to find out how it ends.
Another pleasure of How the French Invented Love is the passionate prose style of Yalom. Her style is personal and informal, although she can shift into the language of analysis as easily as some people shift from one language to another. But it is sentences like this one that will keep the reader engaged: The world of Marguerite Duras is dominated by love--fierce, relentless passion that bursts into creaturely happiness mingled with heartache. That is the kind of sentence that makes a reader read on.
Among the highlights of How the French Invented Love is the chapter on Julie de Lespinasse, a prolific lover and letter writer whose longtime lover, D'Alembert, had the dubious honor of disposing of his lover's voluminous correspondence from another lover. Yalom quotes from the heart rending letters that D'Alembert, wrote to Julie after her death (and his discovery of her betrayal). The chapter on "Yearning for the Mother" had me making lists, adding to my list of classics to read. It also explained why French women never get fat: they are staying in shape for the affairs they will be having with much younger men. And the chapter on "Love Among the Romantics" convinced me that I really must read George Sand. I could go on and on, but you get the idea: this book is going to send you to the bookstore or the library--or to your own bookshelves, to reread favorite classics with a new depth of understanding.
How the French Invented Love is the kind of book I will keep in my library and refer back to often, which is why the bibliography and index are so helpful. Highly recommended.
Marilyn Yalom has a website here: http://www.myalom.com