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The French House:
An American Family, a Ruined Maison,
and the Village That Restored Them All
In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
|The French House
By Don Wallace
Publication Date: June 3, 2014
This book counts for the following Reading Challenges:
MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
One of the characteristics of our modern world is that one no longer remains in one’s job for life. To survive, one often needs to reinvent oneself, and often in lands quite far away from where one was born.
Don Wallace and his wife Mindy are thus typical people of their time. Struggling as a young couple with their jobs and their own identity, they decided to travel in Europe and see if life would be better out there.
Things did not seem to be much brighter than in New York for these two aspiring authors, but at least in Greece they had tasted a bit of island life and they had liked it. So when a friend invited them to spend some time to recuperate on a tiny island off the Brittany French coast, they went.
From now on, forget about your typical modern couple!
When they discovered a house was for sale on this island of Belle Ile, they decided to buy it. The problem was, it looked more like a ruin than a house. Any typical people would probably have chosen security. But the Wallaces decided to follow their dream, their memory of their time there, and they risked everything to achieve their dream. It actually took years for them to be able to finance enough restoration to be able to spend at least one night in their dream house!
I was really amazed by their courage and their tenacity, further more challenged by the notorious slowness of French repair men and workers. Besides, at first they were not even supported by friends and family who thought they were really nuts and totally irresponsible.
So the book is about their adventure, and how they coped all along, with a new born on top and family hardships.
But it is also so much more.
First, the book opens in a great way with top 10 facts and Instructions giving some basic information on the house and that famous island.
With Don, you little by little discover the beauty of the island and its inhabitants, with their unique mentality and culture.
There are amazing descriptions, so hauntingly beautiful that they really make you feel the place and you simply want to be there NOW.
To a couple of kids raised on the melodramatic landscapes of Hawaii and California, Belle Ile was as subtle as an exaltation of wild rosemary after a summer rain, a tone poem of open fields, cypress windbreaks, and neatly clustered villages, all encircled by a fractal fringe of coves, cliffs, and beaches. In place of a grand operatic showstopper, a Mauna Kea or a Yosemite or a Golden Gate Bridge, it offered a little melody that you couldn’t get out of your head.
p.105, beginning of chapter 8.
In this book, as on Belle Ile, I have followed the light of a glowworm on a country lane.
Chapter 8 has fascinating pages on the history of Belle Ile, and how it managed to preserve its beauty and style, unmarred by what usually comes with tourism business.
The book can be hilarious at time, but at the same time always imbued with great love for the place and the local people.
I particularly enjoyed the fact that the author made reference on p. 322 to Pierre-Jakez Hélias (1914-1995) and his famous Le cheval d’orgueil (1975), a memoir of Breton country life that we enjoyed a lot at home, even though we had no Breton roots at all.
VERDICT: With hauntingly beautiful descriptions of a tiny French island and its inhabitants, this book will take you to a different place, and might even inspire you to reconsider your life and finally follow your dreams where you and your family can become whole.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
When life hands you lemons, make citron pressé.
Shortly after Don and Mindy Wallace move to Manhattan to jump-start their writing careers, they learn of a house for sale in a village they once visited on a tiny French island off the Brittany coast. Desperate for a life change, the Wallaces bravely (and impulsively) buy it almost sight unseen.
What they find when they arrive is a ruin, and it isn’t long before their lives begin to resemble it—with hilarious and heartwarming results.
Redolent with the beauty and flavors of French country life, The French House is a lively, inspiring, and irresistibly charming memoir of a family that rises from the rubble, wins the hearts of a historic village, and finally finds the home they’ve been seeking off the wild coast of France. [provided by the publisher]
PRAISE FOR THE FRENCH HOUSE
“A journalist and fiction writer’s account of how a crumbling house he bought on a French island became his family’s unexpected refuge and salvation…Warm, funny and full of heart.” – Kirkus
“You’ve never been any place as beguiling as Don Wallace’s Belle Ile. He’s a funny, literate raconteur with a story full of fine twists, soulful turns, and fantastic neighbors.” – William Finnegan, author of Cold New World
“On a tiny French island, a couple of American dreamers redefine their lives by restoring a ruin—which in this lovely, shimmering story becomes a parable of a saner, greener, more sustainable path that we all can follow if we will but listen to the wisdom of the villagers the way the Wallaces did. The French House moves to a soulful, very funny rhythm all its own.” – Meryl Streep
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Don Wallace has been a magazine writer and editor for 25 years,
and is the film editor for Honolulu Weekly.
He has held a number of senior positions at magazines, including Yachting magazine, SELF,
Golf Digest Woman at The New York Times, and others.
His essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Fast Company, E Magazine,
Redbook, Portfolio, Parents, and many others.
Wallace and his wife, Mindy, split their time between Honolulu, Long Beach, and Belle Ile.
INTERVIEW WITH DON WALLACE
Don, I am delighted to have the opportunity to interview you.
Thank you taking time to answer these questions
Hi Emma, thank you for reading the book so carefully!
And for this opportunity
1. The first chapters of your book show the difficulties you experienced trying to find yourself, and trying to find your place in the world. Coming from the American big city, you ended up on a remote French island with a house almost in ruins. That may sound totally crazy and for sure extremely challenging. Going back to the first years, what would you say was the most challenging of it all?
My wife, Mindy, and I met as young writers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, clueless, dreamy, our wings barely unfolded after the chrysalis of college. We had to find ourselves, toughen up, commit to each other through ups and downs, all during the mistake-filled first years of our marriage. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, we had to go out and buy this ruin on a tiny island off the coast of Brittany. The most challenging moment came after we bought the house, couldn’t pay for further renovations, couldn’t spend the night in it, and yet we were also stuck in miserable jobs to pay off the work we had contracted for. That was about four and a half years in my case. I often thought I’d crack. But Mindy, our son, my commitment to writing, kept me sane. That and a vision of us in our house at last.
2. What kept you going and hoping your dream would eventually come true, despite all the difficulties and the legendary (but alas all true) slowness of French workers and repair men?
I’m an optimist, both physically and mentally, something I like to think I inherited from my father and his father—Grandpa was a big Scotsman who did as he liked all his life, followed his quirky passion for radio (in the early days) and came out on top. But even so, to go seven years without being able to spend a night under the roof of our house was like purgatory. It was a test. My wife is also a tough, smart woman, a part-Korean from Hawaii who surfed big waves as a teenager. But she was also daunted. What kept us going was the memories of a winter we spent in the village in 1980—a magic, remote time, where we had only a couple of neighbors, a woman with 20 cows and a young sailor with a family. There were days when it felt like the Middle Ages and days when the storms could blow you over, followed by crisp bright blue sky days and the first flowers of spring popping up before your eyes. Those memories kept the fire alight.
3. When did you feel you had finally made it?
There was a clear division. The first seven years we couldn’t spend the night under our roof, because we couldn’t afford to pay for a ground floor and a staircase. I got a better job and published a novel, Hot Water; my wife got promoted; and we finally paid off our bills to our very patient contractors and got the team together to finish the house.
4. What do you think was the determining factor for your success in this adventure?
Mindy and I set out to make our own way, independent of our very dominating mothers and, in my case, a very persuasive father. We married at 23, lost a few years on a wrong career track, realized we didn’t want to do anything but write and have adventures—and went for it. In the book I call our attitude “a carefully considered recklessness.” There were times when sensible people would’ve quit. Not us. We saw the house as a long game.
5. What is holding you back from living permanently on Belle-Ile?
Our son is 28, getting married this year, and we don’t see enough of him. Also, we came back to Mindy’s native Hawaii to save her childhood home—a project not complete. We’re sort of repeating what we did with Belle Ile, working hard, defying the odds, trying to keep this beautiful old local-style house from being sold and torn down for a McMansion.
6. Did you experience a huge culture shock? What would you say is most different between the American and the French cultures?
Mindy had already spent a year abroad in the Stanford Tours campus and, far from culture shock, she was enamored of France. She’s a Proustian. She also spoke French. I didn’t. I spoke Spanish. I’d almost gone into a Ph.D. program in Mexican political history. So for me, there was a shock—and the greatest form was linguistically. French is an old language, English a new one. In French everything has a gender, in English we’re gender neutral. Basically I get every word wrong in a sentence unless I get lucky. The only way to know if your chair is a he or a she is to memorize it. And I’ve got better things to do…
7. How would you describe Belle-Ile in 3 adjectives?
Moody, magical, shining…
8. Apart from Belle-Ile, any out of the beaten path places you would recommend to a tourist going for the first time to Brittany?
The Gulf of Morbihan, 10 miles across the Bay of Quiberon from Belle Ile, is a beautiful body of water filled with green islands and surrounded by wooded slopes and picture-perfect towns. It’s a sailor’s paradise, but also technically tricky due to very strong, high tides. There are ferries to various islands; I’d recommend Gavrinis, which has a Neolithic tomb, very rare, dating back to 5,000 B.C. The main town on the north side of the Gulf is Carnac, which is the center of the Celtic/Druid world. If you think Stonehenge is something, come to Carnac—there are 10,000 stones, altars, tombs, dolmens and cromlechs radiating outward. It’s a very spooky and also a very amusing place—there are so many of these tombs that some of them have creperies installed in them, or pizzerias.
9. And what advice would you give to someone ready to launch into something as different as what you did?
To make a really bold change in your life, or add a really hefty complication, is a good thing, maybe even a necessary thing in your twenties and early thirties. When you make a commitment to something that is going to be long-term and not easy to explain to your family and friends, then you’re locking in with your body and soul. That wholehearted feeling of going for it—and not just for another round of beers, or binge-watching Mad Men—can transform your life. Of course, I will add that having a child can do all of the above and you won’t even have to leave your town or city. But, in our case, we’d no sooner bought the ruined house than Mindy got pregnant—and this doubling down made it a white-knuckler of a ride.
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK YET?
Would you enjoy living on a small island? why or why not?
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