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Read the book before you see Meryl Streep as Julia Child in the movie Julie & Julia.

Book Review: My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

Before the movie Julie & Julia hits the theaters in a week or two, take time to learn the backstory by indulging in the New York Times bestseller My Life in France, a memoir written by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme.

Say what you will about the wonderful nature of the internet world, but it takes books to bring the story home. Romance, travel, history – it will all flash by in the film, but the magic would be lost without books, research and good writing.

The upcoming film, starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child, is based on the blog-turned-book written by Julie Powell about her year of cooking her way through Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julie’s book is appropriately titled: Julie & Julia.

We foodies can’t wait for the film, but I promise you’ll treasure it all the more if you slow down and start at the beginning. Here in My Life in France, Julia Child and Alex Prud-homme, her husband’s grand-nephew, put together the extraordinary life of Julia Child, who learned to cook as a new bride in France, and never looked back. Alex, already an author, helped Julia, at age 91, write this memoir. Julia died August 13, 2004, when she was nearly 92.

Go back to 1948, when Julia’s husband Paul worked for the U.S. Information Service at the American Embassy in Paris. Newly married, she joined him for the long journey to France aboard the SS America. French culture slowly won her over, leading her to explore its cuisine and take classes at the famed Cordon Bleu as she settled into a life of her own, far from her family and friends.

Before marrying Paul Child, Julia’s early experiences with cooking closely parallel Julie Powell’s early efforts to replicate Julia’s work, as Julia says:

I would approach the stove armed with lofty intentions, The Joy of Cooking or Gourmet magazine tucked under my arm, and little kitchen sense. My meals were satisfactory but they took hours of laborious effort to produce. I‘d usually plop something on the table by 10 p.m., have a few bites, and collapse into bed. Paul was unfailingly patient. But years later he’d admit to an interviewer: “Her first attempts were not altogether successful… I was brave because I wanted to marry Julia.”

For a peek into Julia’s life, I enjoyed learning of her daily pleasures, and reading the list of all the material she gathered to summon up a life’s measure. Remembering and researching events from 60 years ago could not have been easy, but she indeed had “a thick trove of family letters and datebooks kept from those days, along with Paul’s photographs, sketches, poems and Valentine’s Day cards.” She also had letters Paul had written to and received from his brother, Charlie, with Paul documenting their day-to-day lives like an act of journalism. Perhaps he knew then that we would treasure the story of the making of a celebrity chef. Her own letters home, written on pale blue or white airmail paper survived the years in very good shape. In fact, Julia writes: “It is remarkable that our family had the foresight to save those letters – it’s almost as if they knew Alex and I were going to sit down and write this book together one day.”

Julia seemed to have a photographic memory of her kitchens. Of course, it may be easy to be reminded when your entire kitchen is now housed in the Smithsonian Museum.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961, was Julia Child’s first book and much of her recollections about writing and publishing will be of great interest to fellow writers. We all know the work that goes into our fine prose, but recipes, measurements, translation, graphics, and co-authors all make for quite a stew. On the final selection of the book's title, Julia's co-author declared she did not care for the title. “It’s too late to change it,” said Julia. “Knopf knew a lot more about books than we did. And they were the ones who had to sell it. So, in effect, tant pis." (So much the worse.)

In her early years, My Life in France reveals just how hard Julia worked to become knowledgeable about food and cooking. She recalls pleasant days learning from the “olive oil man on Rue de Rivoli” and getting cooking advice from the “vegetable cart lady” at Paris food stalls. It’s so evident that her later fame and expertise came only through hard work, study, practice, and frustration all those years.

Julia’s reminiscences of buying cheese at local cremerie bear a striking similarity to Jerry Seinfeld’s “soup nazi” episode on Seinfeld. Julia writes of the need to “wait in line, single file, and give your order clearly.”

On the success of her book, in the pre-Oprah days, Julia Child was asked to tape a few episodes of a cooking show, The French Chef, on Boston’s public radio television station. You know what happened from there. Julia rose to the enormous challenge of cooking on camera, timing the recipes, and planning programs with lively conversation, all while wondering if there would be anyone watching.

My Life in France is a true delight, but it is also a study in marriage. Julia and Paul Child were an amazing team. You’ll observe how they both adapted for each other through travel, relocation, jobs, and her booming career, and how much he helped and supported her efforts, even doing photos and sketches for the first cookbook.

What resonates most for me in My Life in France is the great relationships Julia Child had over her lifetime, how much she hurt if a friendship faltered, her love of food, and her true love of France as her spiritual homeland.

I’ll be back in a couple weeks to review Julie & Julia, a Columbia Pictures release due out August 7, 2009. Bon appétit!

About Helen Gallagher

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