Petite Anglaise: In Paris. In Love. In Trouble: A True Story

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A young Englishwoman in Paris, juggling a dying romance and the demands of motherhood, discovers escape, excitement, and—possibly—true love when she reinvents herself with a click of the mouse as … Petite Anglaise.

She has a job in Paris, the city of her dreams, a handsome Frenchman, a beautiful bilingual toddler, and a charming apartment with breathtaking views. So why does Catherine Sanderson feel that her life is coming apart? Stuck in a relationship quickly losing its heat, ...

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Petite Anglaise: In Paris. In Love. In Trouble: A True Story

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Overview

A young Englishwoman in Paris, juggling a dying romance and the demands of motherhood, discovers escape, excitement, and—possibly—true love when she reinvents herself with a click of the mouse as … Petite Anglaise.

She has a job in Paris, the city of her dreams, a handsome Frenchman, a beautiful bilingual toddler, and a charming apartment with breathtaking views. So why does Catherine Sanderson feel that her life is coming apart? Stuck in a relationship quickly losing its heat, overwhelmed by the burdens of motherhood, and restless in a dead-end administrative job, Catherine reads an article about starting an online diary and on a slow day at work—voilà—Petite Anglaise is born. But what begins as a lighthearted diversion, a place to muse on the fish-out-of-water challenges of ex-pat life, soon gives way to a raw forum where Catherine shares intimate details about her relationship, discontents, and most impulsive desires—a daily soap opera starring herself, her lover (Mr. Frog), and their daughter (Tadpole).

When a faithful reader (who happens to be an attractive, charismatic Englishman) tries to get close to the girl behind the blog, the lines between Catherine’s real and virtual personas blur, tempting her to leave Mr. Frog and the life she has worked so hard to construct, in pursuit of l’amour fou. Propelled by her intoxicating alter ego and cheered on by thousands of readers, Catherine’s life spirals to exhilarating highs and dizzying lows as her life and her creation collide head-on and she must somehow make peace with both.

Fizzing with the vitality and allure of Paris itself, Petite Anglaise offers a fresh twist on the classic story of reinvention abroad: how a young woman transforms herself, wielding the power of a mouse.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

From the moment she started French lessons at her Yorkshire grammar school, Sanderson was hooked on all things French. Soon she found herself a pen pal in Lyons whom she just had to visit, and then an exchange job or two in France after graduation. Before long, she was living full-time in Paris with the French boyfriend (aka "Mr. Frog") who'd fathered her daughter. The office job that made her French dream possible wasn't exactly riveting, but one day, when she was roaming the Internet, she discovered the world of bloggers. She created her own, christening herself "Petite Anglaise," and gave birth to her very own "alter ego." At first, being Petite Anglaise gave Sanderson a vehicle for commenting on the lifestyles of the French; gradually, it became a sounding board for her domestic discontents. Not only was her blog an enormous hit, she also began to enjoy the attentions of one of Petite Anglaise's online fans. Naturally—as any romance reader could predict—she ditched Mr. Frog in favor of the online lover. Sanderson's memoir is compulsively readable, especially since she's jazzed up the basic romance formula with all the issues around blogging, like the problem of Petite Anglaise being "wittier and sexier" than she is. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

In 2004, a British secretary living in Paris turned on her PC, and the blog Petite Anglaise (www.petiteanglaise.com) was born. (The author was nicknamed Petite Anglaise by a boyfriend's father.) Four years later, that blog has become this book, which details many aspects of Sanderson's Parisian existence. A decade living in France gave the author a lot to write about, including a long-term relationship that produced a child but ended when she met someone else through her blog. Sanderson takes readers on a fascinating tour of her life that spotlights some lovely Parisian sights along the way. In some of her earlier blog posts, many of which appear here, Sanderson frequently mentioned her struggle to reconcile the two parts of her persona-her blogging self and her "real-life" self. With this book, she succeeds in filling the blog's gaps. A well-written account by a Francophile; recommended for public and larger academic llibraries.
—Erica Swenson Danowitz

Kirkus Reviews
Expat in Paris creates a blog that ends up dramatically altering her humdrum life. Debut memoirist Sanderson hadn't even heard of blogs until the Guardian ran a feature on the popular Belle de Jour, a blogger who wrote about her life as a high-class call girl. Fascinated, the author decided that starting her own Internet diary could be the perfect distraction from her frustrations with a dead-end job, a lusterless relationship and a dwindling social life as the mother of a toddler. Using the nom-de-Web "Petite Anglaise," she began writing anecdotes about her adopted city with a fish-out-of-water slant. Soon she moved on to the emotional terrain of work, boyfriend-referred to as "Mr. Frog"-and their daughter, "Tadpole"; her emotional candor and unflinching honesty quickly gained her an active following. Sanderson began to meet some of her fellow bloggers and readers, setting a precedent for blurring the line between Internet existence and reality. After one date and one tryst in a hotel with "Jim in Rennes," she fell in love and overturned her life for him, breaking up with Mr. Frog and pursuing a relationship with a man who knew her primarily through her blog persona. That persona was a braver, more self-assured version of her actual self, Sanderson notes, and it was decidedly unnerving when her blog readers' postings speculated about her life in terms that suggested it was a story whose plot lines could be changed. The author's intense honesty is a double-edged sword here. Placing her insecurities in the foreground and highlighting selfish concerns in extreme emotional detail, she often comes across as narcissistic and impulsive. But her seamless, dramatically paced narration readsbeautifully, and her ear for dialogue is excellent. Evocative descriptions of Paris are an added plus. Soap-operatic navel-gazing in engaging prose. Agent: Zoe Pagnamenta/PFD New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385522809
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/17/2008
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Catherine Sanderson writes the blog Petite Anglaise, which boasts over 100,000 visitors per month. She lives with her daughter in Paris.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Snapshots


The day I created my anonymous Internet diary, the nom de plume "Petite Anglaise" instinctively sprang to mind, and felt so very right, so very natural, that I considered no other.

Ask any English girl who has ever lived in France, and I'm sure she'll tell you she has been called a petite anglaise at some time or another. It is a name loaded with meaning: an affectionate tone implies that the anglaise in question is not just English but cute and English; a hint of lasciviousness makes her sound sexy, but also taps into a commonly held view that English girls are rather easy.
But there is another layer of meaning I've always found appealing: those two words summed up neatly everything I ever wanted my life to be. Petite anglaise: an English girl who has been translated into French; her life transposed into a French key.

For my pen name, or perhaps that should read my mouse name, I took a liberty, dropping the la which should, by rights, precede it: "Petite" became my first name, "Anglaise" my surname. In a few whimsical clicks, an alter ego was born.

It's simple enough to identify what made these words such a perfect, obvious pseudonym. But I struggle to divine the source of my deep-seated desire to become a petite anglaise in the first place. What on earth could compel a girl to uproot her whole existence when she had never so much as tasted a genuine croissant? When her childhood holidays seldom took her beyond British shores, and her family tree was firmly rooted in Yorkshire? What was it that caused me to fall in love with the idea of immersing myself in a languageand culture which were not my own? And why set my sights on France, in particular?

When Tadpole was born, I spent a sleepless night on the maternity ward gazing intently into her inky, newborn eyes, grappling to come to terms with the indisputable fact that this was an actual person looking back at me, not just a version of Mr. Frog, or me, or both, in miniature. From the outset she seemed to know what she wanted, and I realized I could have no inkling of the paths she would choose to follow. But if I watch her life unfold carefully enough, perhaps I will see clear signposts pointing to who or what she will become. Because when I look backward, ransacking my own past for clues with the clarity that only hindsight can bring, a series of defining moments do stand out. Moments charged with significance; snapshots of myself which, if I join the dots together, lead me unswervingly to where I stand today: from French, to France, to Paris, and to Petite Anglaise.

My recurring daydream, as a child, had long been one of escape. As our Vauxhall Cavalier tore along the highway, my legs wedged at an uncomfortable angle in the narrow space behind my father's seat, my stomach lurching with motion sickness, an image played across my shut eyelids. Closing my ears to the sound of my younger sisters bickering beside me on the backseat, I saw myself running. I parted fronds of wheat as I cut through fields, I sliced across people's gardens, leaped over drystone walls and streams.

It was as if there was somewhere else I wanted to go, but I didn't know, then, where this somewhere was. In the daydream, my course ran parallel to our car. My running self had no inkling of her destination.

A few days shy of my twelfth birthday, dressed in the navy uniform of Mill Mount Grammar School for Girls, my nylon, knee-length skirt crackling with static, I expectantly took my seat in an attic classroom. The wooden desk, scarred with many generations of graffiti, was at an unfamiliar gradient, and I had to place my pen with care, just so, to prevent it rolling to the floor. Mrs. Barker arrived and wrote her name on the blackboard, her resolutely English surname momentarily dampening my enthusiasm. "Bonjour tout le monde!" she said brightly, and with that my very first French lesson began. I opened the well-thumbed Tricolore textbook which was to be my guide for many years to come, pushed my wayward glasses back up to the bridge of my nose, and bent my head studiously over page one.

France. Here was a destination to bend my running steps toward, a hook to hang my daydreams on—so alluring, so exotic, so tantalizingly close. No matter that school French lessons consisted of little more than endlessly rehearsed role-playing and verb conjugations. No matter that my first extended stay on French soil would not take place for another six agonizing years. As I sat in a numbered booth in the school language lab, cumbersome headphones blocking out the English sounds of the world around me, I closed my eyes and pretended I was actually there. I yearned to taste the seven ounces of pate I was instructed to buy in the grocer's shop, to visit the church or the town hall after quizzing a passerby—invariably an elderly man wearing a beret—for directions.
"’coutez, puis repetez!" said the voice on the crackling tape at the start of every exercise. "Listen, then dream" would have been more apt. I'd fallen hopelessly, irrationally, in love with the French language and, by extension, with France. And I'm at a loss to explain why, even now.

It wasn't until the summer before my eighteenth birthday that I finally boarded a coach at the York railway station bound for Heathrow Airport, from where I would fly to France. As I waved goodbye to my anxious mother, I took a series of deep breaths, trying to still the butterflies beating frantic wings against the walls of my stomach. It was hard to believe this was it, I was really going. Unzipping my knapsack with trembling fingers, I checked for the twentieth time that my passport was where it should be, wrapped around the tickets I had bought with money from my Saturday job serving cream teas to heavily perfumed old ladies. For years I'd argued bitterly with my parents every time the thorny subject of French exchanges was broached, indignant at their refusal to smooth my way. It was no good; they were unable to overcome their misgivings about welcoming a stranger into their home. But now, at last, I was of an age to take matters into my own hands. This trip to Lyons was to be my baptism.

For two whole weeks I would stay with Florence and her family. I would sleep in a bed made up with French sheets. I would eat French food at their table, mopping my plate with a chunk of crusty baguette, just like the characters in the Pagnol books I devoured or the actors in the handful of subtitled films I'd found in the local video shop. I would speak French, and only French, every single day for two weeks. For eighteen months I'd written Florence—whose details I'd stumbled upon by chance in the "pen pals" section of a Vocable magazine I'd found lying around in a classroom—long, painstakingly crafted letters, praying that one day an invitation would come. Florence always replied to my letters in French. She shared my obsession with the Cure, and in the photo she'd sent me her hazel eyes were circled with a lot of dark eyeliner, just like Robert Smith's. The dimples in her cheeks, the dusting of freckles across her nose, at odds with the moody image she was trying to project, were rather endearing. Now we would finally meet. I was determined to love her in the flesh.

As I wheeled my suitcase out into the arrivals area, suddenly overtaken by an echo of the shyness which had been the scourge of my early teens, a girl in dungaree shorts hurtled toward me.

"Cat-reen!" she exclaimed. "C'est bien toi?" I nodded, tongue-tied, savoring the sound of my name in its French incarnation. How much prettier "Catherine" sounded on her lips!

Florence was shorter than I had imagined, and her hair smelled strongly of cigarette smoke as she leaned close to my cheek to administer my first-ever French bise. Her accent was like nothing I'd heard in any listening comprehension exercise in the language lab, and for days I had to beg her to repeat everything slowly, several times. My secret hope was that she would teach me local slang so authentic that my teachers back home would be flummoxed, my classmates mute with envy.

The welcoming committee Florence brought to the airport told me everything I needed to know about her happy-go-lucky existence: it consisted of an ex-boyfriend and two younger brothers, but no actual means of transportation. The plan, from what I could gather, was to take a bus to where her elder brother worked, in a nearby village post office. If he was around, he'd give us a lift; if not, we'd hitch a ride to her village. Her father, a widower, was working the late shift at the local sausage factory and wouldn't be home until dinnertime.

Thumbs outstretched, Florence and I stood on the edge of the road while the boys hung well back with my unwieldy suitcase so as not to jeopardize our chances. Thank goodness my parents can't see me now, I thought, preparing to clamber into a French stranger's car, poised to become the subject of a cautionary tale used to deter future generations of exchange students. Remember that English girl? You know, the one who ended up dismembered and used as sausage filling?

But if there was any danger, I was past caring at that precise moment. Every sense amplified, I was too busy feasting on my surroundings: the cars with strange license plates which rumbled by on the wrong side of the road; the way in which Florence's brothers seemed to gesticulate with their hands, their arms, even their shoulders, when they spoke; the unfamiliar cadence of their sentences; the strumming of a thousand cigales, invisible in the scrubby vegetation around us. So caught up was I in the moment that when a car finally slowed to a standstill on the dusty road, it didn't register at first.

"Cat-reen, reveille-toi!" Florence cried, putting her hand on my arm and startling me out of my reverie. "He is stopping, it is time to go!" She dropped her half-smoked Gauloise, scrunching it in a practiced movement between the rubber sole of her tennis shoe and the dusty road, and bent her head to speak to the driver through his half-open window. After lengthy negotiations, we heaved my suitcase into the trunk and clambered into the backseat with one of her brothers.

"Et les autres?" I asked in my pidgin French.

"Oh, don't worry about them," said Florence with a dismissive shrug. "They'll hitch a ride of their own."

As the car sped along, my eyes devoured every street sign, every yellow mailbox, every shop front we passed. It was as if I had stepped inside the pages of Tricolore. Everything felt as alien and exotic as I had so desperately wanted it to feel. And yet, despite the unmistakable Frenchness of everything around me, a part of me felt I belonged here. I wanted to hug myself with glee: I really did thrive on being out of context, just as I'd dreamed I would.

Three years later, when the "year abroad" became the hottest topic of conversation toward the end of my second year of university, I never called it by that name. It was to be my "year in France," with a couple of months in Germany tacked on at the end to pay lip service to course requirements. I filled in an application to work as an English assistante, not caring which region of France I wound up in, although I did rule out Paris. With my small-town background, the sheer scale and intensity of the capital intimidated me. I would visit, and I suspected my path would lead me there eventually, but I wasn't quite ready for the City of Light just yet. Assigned to a lycee in Yvetot, a drab, uninspiring market town in austere Normandy, I was to "teach" English conversation to groups of nonchalant denim-clad teens for a few hours a week. But the job—which I didn't particularly enjoy—was simply a means to an end. All that mattered to me was that I would spend nine whole months in France.

Home was a tiny attic room in a town house in nearby Rouen, rented from a schoolteacher and her piano-tuner husband, whom I rarely saw. Much of my time, in those first weeks and months, was spent with other English assistantes, warming our hands on steaming cups of hot chocolate in smoky cafes, pining for absent boyfriends, and mimicking our students'—and sometimes their teachers'—comical English accents. The experience fell short of my expectations at first: instead of total immersion in the language and culture, I was speaking my mother tongue all day long to pupils, then hanging out with a crowd of fellow anglaises after hours.

One autumn Saturday, I was walking gingerly around the pedestrian town center with Claire, an English girlfriend, on cobblestones made treacherous by their coating of damp coppery leaves. Pausing at a street vendor's cart by the Grosse Horloge, we bought scalding-hot, chocolate-filled crepes, their buttery slickness soaking through thin paper wrappers. As I took my first bite, Claire gave me a conspiratorial nudge, pointing out a tall boy striding toward us with a large German shepherd on a leash, flanked by a couple of shorter friends.

"You know that English teacher who invited me over for dinner with his family last week?" she said, pausing to swallow a mouthful of pancake. "That's his son, Yann, over there. He's not bad, is he?"
As he drew closer, I stared at the slim boy—obviously a student—with pronounced cheekbones, a Roman nose, and moody smudges beneath his blue-green eyes. He wore a long dark gray coat, which emphasized his height, over pale jeans and a pull camionneur, the zip-necked sweater which seemed to be compulsory wear for all Frenchmen that year. Suddenly self-conscious, I prayed I didn't have chocolate smeared around my lips. Yann wasn't just good-looking; he was gorgeous. Tall and dark-haired with an air of melancholy about him and, in some way I struggled to put my finger on, unmistakably French. In that single electric instant I knew that if Yann would have me, my university boyfriend, out of sight and mind back home, was history. Here, right before my eyes, was a compelling reason to upgrade to a French model, a passport to the French life I craved.

I saw Yann often over the next few weeks with Claire and the other assistantes, increasingly tongue-tied in his presence as I grew more and more besotted with him. Was it wishful thinking, or did the way he continually singled me out for attention—even if it was as the butt of his jokes—mean that he was drawn to me, too? A trip to Paris with Claire, Yann, and a gang of his friends finally gave me the pretext I needed to find out for sure. And from the moment he slid into the seat next to mine on the train we boarded at Rouen station, I knew my instincts had not been wrong.

We kissed in semidarkness, surrounded by slumbering bodies mummified in sleeping bags, on the tiled floor of a friend's apartment. I was euphoric. A French boyfriend: sexy, exotic, mine. I loved the way he pouted as he spoke his mother tongue, his range of expressive Gallic shrugs, every twitch of his slim shoulders speaking volumes. I loved the way he could casually throw a meal together in a matter of seconds, toss a salad in a perfect, homemade vinaigrette. With every kiss, with every evening meal at his parents' house, I inched one step closer to my goal: carving out a niche for myself in France, making it my home.

The first time I slept over we'd contrived a flimsy excuse: a late dinner with friends, a missed curfew for my rented room. No one was fooled, but Yann's parents played along gamely. En route to the kitchen to make coffee the following morning, clad only in a borrowed T-shirt, which Yann assured me was perfectly decent but felt quite the opposite, I slid along the walls, cringing with embarrassment, eyes downcast. Yann's father was sitting in his favorite chair by the window, pretending to read Liberation, but from the way his newspaper twitched as I passed, I knew that he had witnessed my discomfort.

"Alors, c'etait comment hier soir?" he asked, eyes twinkling above his newspaper. My cheeks flamed. How was it last night? Could he really be quizzing me about his son's prowess in the bedroom? Surely, even in notoriously permissive France, that wasn't a normal thing for a parent to say? "Le diner, je veux dire, bien ser," he added, as if to imply that if I had jumped to the wrong conclusion, the mistake was mine entirely. But when I looked askance at Yann and saw his smirk, I knew his father's innuendo had been intentional.

"I had a very pleasant soiree, thank you," I replied, still gazing at Yann as I spoke. Something in his eyes spurred me on, making me forget my bashfulness for a moment. "A good time was most definitely had by all," I added, with what I hoped was a suggestive smile.

Yann's father snorted with suppressed laughter. "She gives as good as she gets, this petite anglaise," he said, half to himself, in an approving tone.

I savored the sound of my new name and wore it, from that moment on, as a badge of pride.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Reading Group Guide

1. At one point Sanderson writes, “Only the other day I’d lamented on my blog how thoroughly [Tadpole ’s] father tongue had gained the upper hand since her most recent stay with Mr. Frog’s parents so every syllable of English I could coax from her lips right now represented a small victory, music to my Anglo-Saxon ears.” At the same time, she ’s pleased with her daughter’s increasingly effortless bilingualism. Why is Tadpole ’s acquisition of English so important to Sanderson? What competing forces are at play that would account for her fluctuating reactions to Tadpole ’s use of French and English?

 2. In the book Sanderson describes her blog as a “window onto my soul.” She also admits that many of her entries were “cries for help, pleas for attention, or thinly veiled warnings.” What do you believe are the motivations behind her decision to use blog posts as unconscious ways of communicating with the men in her life? What do you think Sanderson’s answer would be to the same question? 

3. At one point in the book Sanderson relishes the fact that a recently purchased powder blue spring coat has an apple green lining that only she can see. Why does she take such pleasure in keeping something like the lining of her coat for her private enjoyment but at the same time lays her life bare to anyone who has an Internet connection? 

4. When Sanderson first meets one of her fellow bloggers she reveals, “I do write personal things, but I hold plenty back too.I make the final cut. I decide what to show and what not to show. All people really get are brief glimpses of our lives.” Do you wonder at what Sanderson might have held back? Are there questions that are raised in the book that still linger for you? If you were to have an opportunity to ask Sanderson any question, what would it be? 

5. Being given access to the intimate details of a person’s life can create a sense of entitlement to offer advice on the actions of that person. Were there times when you wanted to offer Petite Anglaise advice? What advice would you have given her on her relationship with James, her decisions regarding Mr. Frog, or the challenges of motherhood? 

6. Through much of the book Sanderson draws a distinction between herself and her nom de plume as if one were different from the other. Do you think this is a valid differentiation? Why or why not? 

7. As the number of commentators increases on her blog, Sanderson notes that the more she divulges of her own life, the more other people seem compelled to do the same. What do you believe accounts for this phenomenon? Describe a situation where you have revealed more about yourself than you would have liked to and why. 

8. When Sanderson goes to meet “Jim in Rennes” for the first time a friend suggests that Mr. Frog might learn better how to appreciate Sanderson if he had some competition. Do you believe this was her reason for initially meeting James? What were James’s reasons for pursuing her? What is it about e-mail that builds such intense intimacy before even a first meeting, like it did in the case of Petite Anglaise and “Jim in Rennes”? 

9. After her first meeting with “Jim in Rennes,” Petite Anglaise writes that she feels she is now faced with a choice between two possible versions of the future. In the end, do you believe she made the right decision about which version to choose? 

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