Our library provides free copies of BookPage, which is a great little advert magazine for finding new and upcoming books. I highly recommend it if you’re trying to find something new to shake up your queue. Knowledge of Monsiuer Mediocre came to me via that magazine, and after a few months of waiting for an interlibrary loan to arrive it finally came last week! I’m happy to say this book was worth the wait. Jancee Dunn writes in her blurb on this one, this book is “sharp, funny, and surprisingly tender”. I agree.
As the book’s subtitle explains, this is von Sothen’s account of what it’s like to be a silly American living in France. The book is both relatable and unrelatable, and I think that’s kind of the point. Von Sothen grew up in the D.C. area, the only child of an Emmy-winning father and an artist mother. His parents were older, quirky, and right-leaning. His Mom studied painting in Paris when she was young, and their family vacationed there when von Sothen was a boy. Because of those fond memories, he studied abroad in college and often dated French women while he lived in NYC. He married one of them, and they moved to Paris around 2002 together. It’s…not what he expected (aka not the Disney World version of Paris), but that’s worked out wonderfully for him and his family.
The author is an amalgam of his parents – artistically inclined like his mother (a writer, though), and wacky like his goofy dad. This mix of personality suits the book well as he easily moves back and forth between describing French politics, the complexities of living in an immigrant-dense area of Paris, the silliness of country weddings, the depth of meaning of dinner parties, traffic, racist bread makers, the confusion of whether one is joining a book club or a sex cult, and more.
This isn’t a sweet book, necessarily, but it is a funny one full of wit and humanity. Three sections in particular brought me to tears – one dealing with raising good kids in a dangerous world (compassion being “a better fuel for life than fear” his wife says), drunken dinner parties as metaphors for fighting death, and taking care of parents.