Dreaming in French
On the surface, Dreaming in French sounds like the type of book I would love. It’s about a strong-willed girl named Charlotte growing up in Paris during the 1970s until she and her mother are forced to move to New York. I love anything about Paris, especially during the 1970s with its yé-yé girl singers that ruled the charts, inventive fashion, and sexual freedom. I also love reading about New York during that time period, when a lot of powerful, creative music and art were coming to light.
Sadly, the book is not really about Paris or New York, but about a spoiled, pretentious girl and her equally spoiled, pretentious mother, Astrid. A teenage Charlotte can be forgiven for her self-absorption, but as we watch her grow up, she only becomes more selfish. Astrid is even more selfish than her daughter, breaking the family apart when she has an affair with a Polish dissident and, in a Kafkaesque twist, ends up in jail. Her daughters rally to Astrid’s side, but her faithful husband feels betrayed and will never forgive her. They divorce, and Astrid leaves for New York to start anew. Charlotte, who adores her mother, decides to go with her. Her sister Lea remains in Paris with their father Frank, while his Swedish secretary slowly carries out her plans to marry him.
Charlotte goes from a life of comfort to a life of… slightly less comfort. Her father provides her with some money, and she attends a private school after she and Astrid check out the local high school and find “a group of black girls…tough urban girls with knowing eyes.” This is but one of several racist statements McAndrew makes throughout the novel.
It is hard to sympathize with Charlotte’s troubles when it seems that she has everything going for her: she is thin, white, beautiful, extremely intelligent, and wealthy. She is aware of her privilege but never thinks about it extensively, providing the perfect example of how acknowledging privilege is not the same as understanding it. Rather than use her privilege to try and change the world or examine questions of inequality, Charlotte seems to take pride in how spoiled she is.
Charlotte reminded me a lot of Rory Gilmore from the TV show Gilmore Girls because she is also smart, pretty, and white, except that Rory is humble and likable, whereas Charlotte is not. No doubt due to her pedigree and upbringing, Charlotte gets into Yale, and busies herself studying post-structuralist feminism. At Yale she has a disturbing relationship with a man named Azher, who attempts to enter her almost brutally. Their forceful, violent sex and bordering-on-abusive relationship is treated with the same detached superficiality of everything else in the novel. McAndrew handles cancer, eating disorders, cross-cultural interactions, AIDS, and political uprisings with the aloof tone of one talking about the weather.
Eventually Charlotte comes into her own working for Glamour magazine and the reader is supposed to be happy for her, but Charlotte is still more of a petulant child than amiable heroine. McAndrew’s tendency to rely on clichés only exacerbates the situation. By the end of the novel Charlotte has discovered that she holds the key to her own happiness, her father has remarried a sweet widow who is also the mother of Charlotte’s childhood best friend, and her sister Lea is literally living happily ever after in a castle with her husband who’s a legitimate Prince. It’s all the stuff of an airplane book, and not a particularly good one at that.
The world really does not need another book about a privileged young woman trying to find herself through shopping and sex with men she doesn’t love. To this type of ridiculous, pointless novel, I say j’en ai marre—I’ve had enough.