When French Elle editor Sophie Fontanel recently argued, by way of her sensual but anti-carnal book The Art of Sleeping Alone, that the French make better celibates, it seemed as if we may have skimmed the outer reaches of the French ideal. For decades, books about how to master the French way of living, or, quite simply, being—living implying an ungainly dose of effort—have boasted that the French cook better, eat better, dress better, and love better than you and I do. More recently, the genre has managed to outdo itself by also claiming to raise children better and, as Fontanel showed us, abstain better.
But lest one think the depths of French superiority have been fully plumbed, the latest addition to the incessant genre, Ann Mah’s Mastering the Art of French Eating, shows us it’s bottomless. When her diplomat husband is called away to Iraq at the start of their three-year post in Paris, Mah, a journalist, decides to dedicate herself to French cuisine. Gleaning inspiration from another diplomatic wife, American chef and author Julia Child, she goes on a culinary field trip across France, sharing stories and recipes she finds along the way. Brewing beneath Mah’s mouthwatering descriptions of boeuf bourguignon and soupe au pistou is the same insinuation propping up this entire genre: that the French not only live well but better: “And yet, there was something else, a European exoticism that captivated me—a cheese course before dessert, shops shuttered in the afternoon heat, a game of boules playing in the dust of the village square,” she writes of a weekend trip to Provence.
Rather than shrink from these implications of inferiority, American women, more than anyone else, it seems, have bought into it. It’s a belief that has spawned an endless genre of literature—and mini-economy, as evidenced by the dominance of these books on The New York Times bestseller lists. There’s the classic French Women Don’t Get Fat, which has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide; French Women Don’t Get Facelifts; Ooh La La!: French Women’s Secrets to Feeling Beautiful Every Day; Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl; French Women Don’t Sleep Alone; What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind; Bringing Up Bébé; and Lessons From Madame Chic—just to name a fraction.