Dreaming in French

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Overview

Charlotte Sanders a precocious American girl growing up in Paris in the late 1970s, leads a charmed life. As students at an elite international school, she and her peers study in Paris's cafés and tabacs, see movies at the Cinémathèque, and experience the thrills and agonies of first love to the sounds of Serge Gainsbourg and Pink Floyd. Charlotte's father, a lawyer and quiet intellectual, devotes his spare time to Balzac and opera. Her sister, Lea, is a star equestrian. And her mother Astrid's passion for ...

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Overview

Charlotte Sanders a precocious American girl growing up in Paris in the late 1970s, leads a charmed life. As students at an elite international school, she and her peers study in Paris's cafés and tabacs, see movies at the Cinémathèque, and experience the thrills and agonies of first love to the sounds of Serge Gainsbourg and Pink Floyd. Charlotte's father, a lawyer and quiet intellectual, devotes his spare time to Balzac and opera. Her sister, Lea, is a star equestrian. And her mother Astrid's passion for left-wing causes is equaled only by her fashion sense.

But this idyllic childhood is turned upside down when Astrid has an affair and the family is shattered. Leaving her sister in Paris, Charlotte follows her mother to New York. There, reduced circumstances and Astrid's unwillingness to face reality force Charlotte to quickly grow up. In the shadow of her glamorous and erratic mother, Charlotte has to negotiate her own path to womanhood, eventually living through her own unhappy love affair and returning to a Europe that has been reshaped by the downfall of Communism.

At once a coming-of-age story and a meditation on cultural identity, Dreaming in French is an enchanting portrayal of the challenges of adolescence and an honest account of one girl's discovery that where we come from makes us who we are.

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Editorial Reviews

Maria Russo
Americans in France inhabit a crowded literary neighborhood, but McAndrew's novel brings an original sensibility to this turf, as well as a plot that takes satisfying, unexpected turns…McAndrew can do cross-cultural humor with the flair of Diane Johnson, but she also has her own kind of sophistication—an international knowingness coupled with a flexible American practicality.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

McAndrew's atmospheric second novel (after Going Topless) takes readers into the superficially glamorous lives of the expatriate Sanders family in late 1970s Paris. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte lives with her snobby older sister, "emotionally autistic" father and chic "though she was from Kentucky" mother, Astrid. Charlotte busies herself with the standard obsessions of adolescence: crushes, homework, power plays within her school's cliques. Her journey to adulthood begins as her parents' marriage-and her family-crumble when her mother's affair with a Polish dissident lands Astrid in jail. Forced to choose between her parents, Charlotte moves with Astrid to the punk scene of early '80s New York and works her way through the milestones of a young woman's life: high school, college, work. Slowly, she finds her place in the world while her family's capacity for reinvention leads its members to new and unexpected alliances. McAndrew's casual but assured depictions of life among the upper crust of Paris and New York ("those heavy-lidded women of indeterminable age") and wry voice ("one of those iconic Parisian addresses that only foreigners could afford"), make this coming-of-age novel a delectable treat. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
Is it possible to love your mother too much? Even at age 15, Charlotte Sanders worries about her mother. Astrid Sanders is a glamorous American socialite in 1970s Paris, and Charlotte hovers in her shadow. The family's sophisticated lifestyle comes to a sudden end when Astrid is arrested in Poland after following her lover to Warsaw. Astrid's selfish infidelity causes the irrevocable breakup of their seemingly happy family. After a quiet divorce, Astrid moves with Charlotte to New York, where Charlotte takes refuge from her pain in the arms of men—many men. She bounces from a private high school to Yale, from one-night stands to a semiserious relationship with a Pakistani grad student. But even as she grows up, Charlotte can't escape the heartbreak her parents' divorce—and her mother's betrayal—caused. VERDICT Full of lush language and startling imagery, this book initially reads like Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, while the second half is full of drama and angst reminiscent of Jhuma Lahiri's The Namesake. Fans of Lahiri and Diane Johnson will find a similar transcultural reading experience in McAndrew's second novel (after Going Topless).—Anika Fajardo, St. Catherine Univ. Lib., St. Paul
Kirkus Reviews
Expansive coming-of-age novel set against the backdrops of Paris in the 1970s and Manhattan in the '80s. Insightful, dryly witty teenager Charlotte Sanders and her older sister Lea have grown up in Paris with their American parents, Astrid and Frank. The family occupies a sprawling apartment in the faubourg Saint-Germain, and their chaotic, bohemian lifestyle revolves around the dynamic Astrid, a native Kentuckian with an impenetrable armor of charisma and glamour. Within this atypical setting, narrator Charlotte is a typical teenager: She frets over her first love, quarrels constantly with her prettier sister and idolizes the perfect symbiosis of her parent's marriage. But when Astrid, whom Charlotte both adores and resembles, warns her daughter not to love her so unconditionally, the scene triggers a silent alarm. Astrid's affair with a key member of Poland's anti-communist movement is soon revealed, and the family is wrenched apart, launching Charlotte on a tumultuous journey to adulthood that takes her to Manhattan with her mother and far afield from the sure footing of her childhood. The fracturing of the Sanders family is also the point at which the pace of the novel begins to accelerate, hurtling us toward a conclusion set nearly 15 years later. The author invites readers to view this family intimately over time, all the while coloring their tribulations with a wider perspective. When Astrid is forgotten by the renegade lover for whom she risked everything, Charlotte observes, "My mother couldn't compete with history." In the novel, thankfully, there is no such competition, only the seamless intertwining of the personal and global. McAndrew (Going Topless, 2004) has immense talentfor calling up vastly different settings in precise detail, and her observations, as realized by her clear-eyed protagonist, are deliciously sharp-edged. Charlotte remains a pleasure to spend time with, even as life determines her course. Dense with context and deeply nuanced, yet effortlessly readable. McAndrew is a real find.
From the Publisher
“McAndrew can do cross-cultural humor with the flair of Diane Johnson, but she also has her own kind of sophistication—an international knowingness coupled with an American practicality.”

—The New York Times

“McAndrew has immense talent for calling up vastly different settings in precise detail, and her observations, as realized by her clear-eyed protagonist, are deliciously sharp-edged. Dense with context and deeply nuanced, yet effortlessly readable. McAndrew is a real find.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“A sophisticated coming-of-age story.”

—Daily Candy

“McAndrew's casual but assured depictions of life among the upper crust of Paris and New York and wry voice, make this coming-of-age novel a delectable treat.

—Publishers Weekly

“McAndrew’s novel brings an original sensibility as well as a plot that takes satisfying, unexpected turns.”

—The New York Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594434702
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 12/14/2010
  • Pages: 314
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Megan McAndrew

Megan McAndrew is herself the daughter of expatriates. She grew up in France, Spain and Belgium before attending college in the United States. She worked in Warsaw, Poland, as a representative for the Financial Services Volunteer Corps. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her teenage son.

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Read an Excerpt

5

In a way, my parents were both on the run, Astrid from Appalachia, and Frank from whatever it was in America that constrained his very being. My father came from a wealthy Connecticut family that expected its sons to be lawyers, and though Frank had loved music more than law, he had followed in his father's footsteps. I always wondered why he didn't rebel. In his mild-mannered way, he, too, had a wild streak — after all, he married Astrid — but he claimed he had no talent for music, and maybe that was true, though Astrid said he simply lacked the courage of his convictions.

Frank's mother didn't approve of Astrid. She found her wild and bohemian and, it was obscurely understood, lower class. She made overtures after they were married at City Hall, inviting them to lunch in Greenwich and presenting them with a punch bowl in a Tiffany box, but the damage was done and neither Astrid nor my father ever entirely forgave her. I had only met her twice, the second time when I was eight and we were returning to New York from my Kentucky grandmother's funeral. We drove up to Connecticut, where we sat through a formal lunch in a vast blue dining room, after which Lea and I were presented with identical leather-bound copies of the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I don't think Lea ever read hers, but I devoured Little House in the Big Woods on the plane. Though I barely knew her, I felt a little sorry for my Connecticut grandmother. Her Christmas and birthday presents always included a card expressing the wish that we could see each other more often, but when I pointed this out to Frank, he replied that there was nothing to prevent her from coming to France. She never did, though, and we rarely traveled to America. Our home was in Paris and Frank saw no reason to drag us back and forth across the ocean when there were so many more pleasant places in Europe to visit.

My parents met in New York, where Frank worked for a law firm and Astrid had come to be an actress, boarding a Greyhound bus in Louisville with ten dollars in one pocket and the address of Radio City Music Hall in the other. You would think that Astrid would have been a natural on the stage but, like most extravagant personalities, she was only good at playing herself. She did enjoy a moderate success as a chorus girl, because of her lovely, long legs, but she was too tall to be a leading lady, and by the time Frank came along, she was working as a coat-check girl at Shrafft's and wondering what had happened to her dreams.

She and Frank met on the Madison Avenue bus, where he sat on her hat. Astrid always believed that luck only comes to those who tempt it, and she had bought the hat at Bergdorf's with her last thirty dollars, a sum that equaled her monthly rent on Cornelia Street. The hat was sitting on the next seat, and when Frank came along, he didn't see the box and sat right on it, crushing it under his weight.Astrid let out a shriek. She was looking particularly fetching that day, in a cherry-red Claire McCardell dress with a yellow belt, and when she shrieked, Frank first thought she was mad and, then, after he got a look at her, realized she was the most striking woman he had ever seen. Astrid grandly refused to let him replace the hat, but accepted an invitation to dinner at Lutèce. That night, she entered another world, where waiters called her Madame and served her rich foods in creamy puddles. It was the first fancy meal she had ever had, and she reveled in every morsel, from the quenelles de brochet sauce Nantua to the bombe glacée that came for dessert, rimy and sumptuous on its silver platter. My mother always said that luxury is wasted on the rich, that you have to have been brought up on Velveeta and crackers in order to truly appreciate the fine things in life. Afterward, they took a carriage ride through Central Park. It was a balmy spring night; the Japanese cherries around the reservoir were in bloom. By then they were just soft shapes in the dark, but their scent perfumed the air. Frank held her hand and asked her to marry him. She thought he was kidding, but then she looked in his eyes and realized he was serious. "Why don't you sleep on it?" she said.

He did, and in due course, Astrid moved in to his Gramercy Park apartment, to the dismay of his parents, and the delight of her sister, Maybelle, who stayed with them when she visited New York. Maybelle wasn't fat back then, and though she didn't have Astrid's sense of style, she was a flirt of the first order and quite turned the head of Frank's colleague Phil Atwater, who joined the ranks of the many rich men Maybelle might have married, if they'd only behaved like gentlemen.That spring, to make up for their City Hall wedding, Frank took Astrid to Paris on the Queen Mary. They traveled first class and Astrid wore a different cocktail dress every night. In those days she hadn't yet learned to flout convention, and she dressed like Audrey Hepburn in Charade. I have a picture of her standing on the deck in cat-eye sunglasses, her hair caught back in a scarf, and if you didn't know anything about her, you would think she had spent her life on ships, when the truth was that, until that day, she had never even seen the ocean.

My parents found themselves in Paris. There was something in them both that could only flourish in exile, like plants that do better in hothouses than in their natural habitat. They stayed at the Montalembert and strolled over to the Deux Magots every afternoon, where they sat on the terrace and Frank talked about the existentialists. In fact my father didn't care for Sartre and Camus; he found them depressing and boorish. His true loves were Balzac and Maupassant, whom he had studied at Yale. Back then, as she would have been the first to admit, Astrid couldn't have told one from the other, but, thirsty for culture, she soaked it all up like a sponge.The night before their return to New York, she wondered out loud why they had to go back. What was the point of having money if you couldn't do what you wanted with it? Frank was so seduced by this notion, which ran counter to all his family's precepts on thrift and prudence, that he agreed; though he insisted later that they go back to New York so he could get himself transferred to his firm's Paris office, prudence winning out in the end, as it usually did with my father.

It is said that Americans come to Paris to reinvent themselves, and my parents were no exception. Unmoored from his Yankee roots, Frank was finally able to become the gentleman scholar he had always wanted to be, devoting himself to his library and the collection of rare opera recordings that would in time consume most of his leisure. It was Astrid, however, who underwent the truly glorious transformation: The French love caractère, and my mother had caractère to burn, as well as the adaptive skills of a chameleon.Paris was her finishing school, the atelier in which, layer by layer, she acquired her polish, a process aided by the fact that, as she would have been the first to tell you, the French can't tell a Rockefeller from a hillbilly. She started with the usual stints at Alliance Française and Cordon Bleu, conjugating irregular verbs and making béchamel with the other American ladies, but as she told Frank, she hadn't come to Paris to become Betty Housewife. Then she met Grace, who explained that no one expects Americans to speak French, let alone cook.

After they returned from Afghanistan,Astrid had the apartment painted. She hired one of Grace's protégés, a Chilean Maoist on the run from the Pinochet regime. "We need a painter, not a terrorist," Frank objected, but she talked him into it in the end, assuring him that Armando had been trained as a housepainter. This turned out to be a slight exaggeration, but before my father could protest any further, Armando had moved into our chambre de bonne, his sole possessions a guitar and a Che Guevara poster that he affixed over the bed. Lea was sure he was going to murder us all in our sleep, but I was smitten.

"No more neutrals!"Astrid cried."I want color!"Armando obliged her with a shrug, as if he had long grown used to the caprices of rich women. He painted the dining room cerise and the hallway lapis, the living room the vibrant yellow of buttercups. I followed him from room to room, making cow eyes and offering him Cokes. Astrid kept cases of them in the fridge — it was the one thing she missed about America — and he would gulp them down thirstily, handing me back the empty bottle with a disdainful expression. When he was finished, the apartment looked like a jewel box, and it was generally felt that Astrid had pulled off a coup. "She has some nerve, your mother," Grace said admiringly. Frank was the only one who noticed that the corners were sloppy, and that Armando had only done one coat in the hallway.

Armando hung around for a few more weeks. Frank, who enjoyed a political debate, tried to engage him a couple times at the dinner table, but Armando just frowned and changed the subject, until Frank finally gave up.As he didn't seem like the type of person who would blow things up, I assumed that he had done something more intellectual, like write songs against the government or distribute leaflets, which people were always doing in Paris. Then one day he disappeared, without even leaving a note. I thought he must have had a reason. Pinochet's henchmen must have tracked him down, maybe even kidnapped him. He was probably in danger. In my bed at night, I played scenarios in my head where I saved him and, in his gratitude, he pledged eternal love to me. Then Lea saw him with a girl in the Luxembourg Gardens.Typical, she said, but I was crushed, and I resolved to never love again.

Copyright © 2009 by Megan McAndrew

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