Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance, by Marilyn Yalom

Harper Perennial, 2012
400 pp
(arc -- my thanks to the publisher and to Trish at tlc book tours!)

TLC Book Tours

 "The French eroticize everything..."

Before you sit down with this book, do yourself a huge favor.  Along with your cup of tea or coffee (or perhaps in this case your café au lait) grab a notepad and a pen because you will find yourself wanting to write down and remember the huge list of titles mentioned in this delightful, insightful and entertaining book.

 As the author notes, the French have long been considered the most passionate "purveyors of love" and in How the French Invented Love, Marilyn Yalom examines how this idea came to be.   From the days of the early troubadours to modern-day movies, the book is  a 900-year journey through the construct of  "l'amour á la française."   It is a look at how the French have "championed themselves as guides to the art of love," incorporating into their works all of the traits Americans find titillating but which the author says we are "reluctant to admit as normal." Where we're much more focused on morality in love, the French have been drawn to erotic and sexual passion that over the course of time came to find different expression via the medium of  plays, letters, books, art, and  poetry.   Of course, while the French didn't actually invent the concept of love per se,  Ms. Yalom notes that they did spend nine centuries reinventing it in its many variations.  From Abélard and Héloise, the "Patron Saints" of lovers in France, the book winds its way through the invention of romance through Courtly Love, through Gallant Love, Comic and Tragic Love, Seductive and Sentimental  Love,  Oedipal "Yearning for the Mother," to name only a few.  Same-sex love is also highlighted as is love as viewed by the Romantic writers and beyond. While discussing each shift in thought, the author takes her readers through several authors whose works illustrate her main ideas, populating her book with famous writers such as Balzac, Stendahl, George Sand, Flaubert, Gide, Colette, and Proust, in whom the author finds an "ongoing source of beauty and truth...humor and insight."  As Yalom examines these writers and their contributions to the ongoing paradigm shifts, she also takes up discussions of some of their works but stops herself here and there,  so as not to spoil the book for  prospective readers.   Aside from gaining the benefits of the author's remarkable expertise in French literature and her analysis of how the French have historically carried on with romance, passion, sex and marriage, the author also inserts her own personal commentary here and there throughout the book.

As the author notes, to do a  "proper" job on the French history of love would require a minimum of ten volumes, so don't expect to find every French author's work in this book.  But  How the French Invented Love is a multifaceted, little gem of a book, very intelligently written and entertaining at the same time.   It's okay  if you know very little or absolutely nothing about French literature; it is extremely readable and written in a way that anyone can understand.  There is so much here that, as I noted right away, you will want to have pen and paper handy not so much for notes, but for titles that may strike your fancy as you're reading through the book.  What I really, REALLY enjoyed about this book is that the writer examines her topic and shares her love and passion for French literature as a reader.   While she is also a professor, you can really sense the great enthusiasm she has not just for the literature, but for France and its people as well.  I also liked the fact that the book  can also be read as a very brief social history of France from the heyday of the aristocracy, into the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, down through la belle époque and on into modern times. Along with the discussion of their works, the author also includes glimpses into the lives of several authors and how their real-life experiences often bled through into their writing. How the French Invented Love is just a super book all around.  It actually makes you stop and think about your own life and loves -- and whether or not we Americans may have really missed the boat as far as our hang-ups re morality over our passions, especially considering the debates over same-sex marriage.  Seriously,  why shouldn't people feel free to love and be with the people they're the most passionate about?  Maybe we should take a lesson from the French, especially in this case!

My only minor issue with this book  is that the  title is a bit of a misnomer.  I mean, really, the French didn't actually invent love, but constructed their own reinvented versions of  l'amour francaise over time.    This could be a bit misleading, but really, it's such a non-issue in the bigger scheme of things -- if you are at all inclined toward literature and especially toward love, you'll really enjoy this one.

 The tour continues: click here to find where the tour of this book goes next!


  1. I see what you mean about the title but I also see what you mean about it not really mattering - sounds like this is a wonderful read!

    Thanks for being on the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

    1. As always, thanks to TLC for letting me be on the tour! And thanks for the Facebook mention.

      It is a good book -- I have so many books I want to read now just based on what I've read here!


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