France with my Father seems like the typical sort of book you would find from Trinidad, California. There are plenty of nicknames given to towns that you find in Humboldt County: there’s McKinleyville which is transformed into McKhickleyville or Oklahoma by the Sea, and Arcata sometimes gets called Hippieville, and then there’s Trinidad, the drinking village with a fishing problem or its reputation as being just a fake front for vacation rentals. So a story from someone from Trinidad about travelling around France, without a bevel of nice restaurants, few worries about money, and plenty of shopping, is unimaginable.
But Janine’s book does have more character than the wealth itself and their travels around France are a genuinely warm and heartening voyage. Its portrayal of France and French people is charming, appreciative, and most of all authentic. It’s a real story, and one where the simple charms of life in France spill through. The sense of people with the stolid quiet patience of her father, Pierre Volkmar, the centerpiece of the book,
Of course, it is inherently a very touristy look at France, focusing on the scenic views of places like Monnet’s gardens, peaceful Provencal villages, classy Parisian bistros. It’s a real France of course, but also its touristy side, that designed to appeal to strangers and foreigners, made for ease and comfort. French women are all chic and elegant, with their scarfs wrapped elegantly around their necks, tasteful skirts that the author envies, self-assured. Even within the flea markets, overt poverty is rarely mentioned. The banlieues are carefully skirted. I travelled through France and didn’t look for this either, but it is striking for its absence and the golden filter which is placed over France.
It’s certainly a narrow side of France, a bit hagiographic, but it’s hard to resist its charm. Janine’s love for French art makes her a relatable narrator, and it adds a perspective of beauty which overlays much of the journey. Little historical anecdotes pop up here and there, be it the shoddy treatment afforded Cezanne or how he took umbrage at thinking he was being mocked in a little inn in, the Hotel Baudy near Monnet’s gardens. Janine genuinely loves France, and it’s hard not to be swept up in her enthusiasm. Little stories of visiting flea markets, spurts of humor in interactions with French tour guides, getting lost in voyages on the back roads, make it into a very human and kind story.
Especially with her relationship to her own grandfather, Paul Volkmar, and the enjoyable enjoyable search for family roots and connection in the old country. Her grandmother too, with the memory of the spunky little French woman, is a vital part of the story. Some of the best parts of the book are the initial segments of the trip back to France in 1924, which give France an air of timelessness, a family saga throughout the ages. You can critique this feeling of timelessness, in the vein of France as a country which has changed markedly over the years, but at the same time it seems like there is an element of truth: France does have a character which changes more slowly than its face.
A conventional book, the sort of feel good story of visiting a well-to-do and romanticized place, but France with my Father is charming and it focuses on the human relationships which give life meaning.