Letter of Recommendation

CreditIllustration by Chloe Scheffe

Several years ago, a website asked a bunch of contributors, including me, to write about our most embarrassing favorite books. When the piece went live, I scanned it eagerly at first, and then with dawning horror. Some writers listed fantasy novels, or flirtations with Ayn Rand. A few mentioned Kerouac. And then there was mine: "I did go through a period where I would covertly — but slavishly — read every book I could lay my hands on on how to be sexy/chic/mysterious/alluring like a French woman," I wrote. It was, by far, the most embarrassing admission on the list.

But at least I know I'm not alone in my shame. The Frenchwoman how-to is a mainstay of the industry, the publishing equivalent of a bottomless brunch. A visit to your local bookstore will tell you not merely how to dress, eat and raise children like a Frenchwoman but also how to buy lingerie, decorate your home, seduce a man after a certain age and wear perfume — this last suggestion, unlike the rest, seems to have taken. I cannot resist a single one of these volumes; I own them all. Indeed, my shameful French-girl library takes up an entire suitcase that I keep stashed under my bed, like Breton-striped porn.

By chance, I read my first when I was actually living in Paris. Sitting on the floor of an English-language bookstore, I was riveted. I read another, and then another. Soon I was having them shipped to me by Amazon U.K. It wasn't that I was learning much I didn't know. In fact, I soon saw that the advice could be capricious: Live by strict rules. Break all the rules. Be naked. Never be naked. Have a really ornate bathroom. Have a really minimalist bathroom. Lie constantly. Never lie. Smoke, but don't really smoke. Love your body. Don't be fat. Dance like no one's watching. Dance like everyone's watching, all the time, and you want to seduce them.

However arbitrary her views, I soon learned, the Frenchwoman in these books is always the same person: Parisian, insouciant, effortlessly chic, usually white, untouched by any hint of cultural strife or political upheaval. She mixes high and low fashion, Cartesian rationalism and unbridled joie de vivre, and also neutral shades. She wears a red lip for a day and indulges with restraint.

The books devoted to this legendary woman all fall into three basic categories. One: Wise Frenchwoman, dismayed by American crumminess, deigns to share her wisdom on, say, how she and her countrywomen don't get fat. Two: North American schlub marries Frenchman, becomes expat and learns secrets of life, home d├ęcor, child rearing and bras from French fairy godmother. Three: The sad-sack protagonist has passing experience of idealized France — generally a year abroad — and brings back superficial lessons to transform the lives of fellow sad-sacks.

In these books, we Americans are portrayed horribly — somehow simultaneously slovenly and uptight, perpetually dressed in spandex yet overweight, arrogant yet superficially friendly, impervious to pleasure and obsessed with mammon. Lacking cultural wisdom and any sense of our own history, we just want to make war and wear old sports bras. (We love wearing old sports bras. The grayer and saggier the better.) Indeed, Americans are so repulsive, it's a wonder any of us managed to be conceived, let alone nab these suave French partners.

This is the part I love. While it is the Frenchwoman who is the ostensible protagonist of these stories, it's the wretched North American slattern we really get to know. And in an era when we're told to practice self-love, there's something perversely glorious about wallowing in such a cesspool of self-loathing. We cheer for her. We want her to succeed — impress her mother-in-law with her children's palates, lose that excess weight by limiting herself to only the finest pastries, prune her closet to beautifully curated investment pieces. By the end of the book, the American or Canadian has learned what's important, looks chic and despises her own kind with the zeal of a convert. It's as satisfying as a makeover montage and as predictable as an episode of "SVU."

In recent years, the genre has grown to include hygge (how to be Danish) and lagom (how to be Swedish), and guides on being Greek and Italian too. The crazier things get here at home, it seems, the more certain readers long to escape into a culturally homogeneous fantasy Europe where everyone shares the same values, works a 30-hour week and is nourished by deep roots and routines that are also, somehow, supposed to be welcoming and inclusive — learnable by the likes of you and me. As a friend once pointed out, the implied subtitle of all these books is: If we only had a system!

Reading them, I feel stirrings of, well, patriotism. I feel American. The cultures presented by these books are fantasies, often disturbingly conservative ones, with all the sexual and ethnic strife airbrushed out of the picture. But maybe for that reason they touch something real in us. A longing for order but, beneath it, an urge to rebel, to be messy and flawed. We don't have a system — we have chaos. We want the gloss of other cultures but on our own terms, and we want to be made to feel bad — briefly. To inhabit these worlds for a few hundred pages is a kind of submission. But in the end, of course, the kind we pay for.

Sadie Stein is a writer based in New York.

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