For anyone who has lived in France Chris Proctor’s French Leave wonderfully sums up the expat community in general. Not everyone, because everyone is different with their own quirks and foibles, but when you live in an expat community, there are always eccentrics, the posh ones, the people who prey on other expats for their living, and most, well, most are escaping something…
This extremely funny story is set in the hilltop village of Les Essards. Cleverly, it is a tale of two nationalities, both living in the same village, but told from their individual standpoints.
The first, and he must surely come first because it is his country, is Jean-Marie. Born in the village, through his eyes the reader is able to look back over the years, to when he was a boy, his childhood, the war, and his simply told memories and observations. This is a life which, as is normal in France, hasn’t changed much for centuries, for the French are traditionalist, their lives are dictated to by the natural world around them, the seasons, the harvests and the accompanying festivals. Also, they look after each other, and the villagers look after their own, as Jean-Marie discovered when he returned from military service having had Meningitis. No one French laughs at him, he is one of them, to be protected and cared for.
On the other side of village life there are the expats, mostly British but sometimes Dutch, American, or other nationalities. They look upon village life as ‘quaint,’ indeed, my own father 20 years ago, on his first visit to our place (Sarthe, Pays de la Loire) remarked “It’s like Cornwall 30 years ago.”
Claire has lived in the village for a long time. Indeed her son René went to the village school, until his father, Ralph, decided he needed to go to boarding school in the UK to be with his ‘own kind,’ and so on, and so forth… Her house was once owned by Jean-Marie’s grandfather, and Jean-Marie’s memories are firmly rooted there.
After Ralph returned to the UK, Claire has been alone, until a fairly recent friend asks if he can stay. And so Robin arrives in his old van. Penniless, and vaguely aiming to write a book about the French Revolution, he is taken under Claire’s wing, and introduced to the eclectic expat group living in the area.
The tales and characters cannot fail to make you smile. And if, like myself you’ve lived a while in this beautiful country you will not fail to recognise some of the characters you’ve known or heard of yourself. From markets where it is “…spot the Frenchman,” to that man who knows everyone and can fix anything… for a price. Dodgy dealers and schemers are alive and very much working theirs schemes in rural France, making a nice little earner, thank you very much! Expats living the dream, despite running out of money daaarling, it’s all in this book. And all the while life goes on for the French, and Jean-Marie, just as it has always done.
Throughout the book there run two stories, Jean-Marie’s, and Claire and Robins’. It’s wonderful written and very clever. And, the ending is, trust me, a real surprise!
I highly recommend this excellent book to anyone who wants to know what expat life is really like, whether you partake, or watch from the side-lines like we did. I would also like to say that it really does portray ‘real village life’ in France from a local standpoint, and is very thought-provoking.
5 Stars +
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