In her mid-thirties Karen has it all: a career as a fashion editor, a handsome boyfriend, a fab flat in west London and an array of gorgeous shoes. But when her 'plus one' leaves, she wonders if there is more to life than high fashion. So, she hangs up her Manolos and waves goodbye to her city lifestyle, deciding to go it alone in a run-down house in rural Poitou-Charentes, western France. Once there, she encounters a host of new friends and unsuitable suitors, soon learning that true happiness can be found in the simplest of things - a bike ride through the countryside on a summer evening, or six glasses of Pinot in a neighbor's garden. If you've ever dreamed of chucking away your BlackBerry and down shifting, "Tout Sweet" is perfect summer reading."
Review: After my trip to France this past summer, there isn't much about this book and cover that doesn't appeal to me. There is that certain passion for life in all of its facets that one can readily recognize in the French, and something that is very romantic--on the surface. Don't get me wrong, it is very romantic, but Karen Wheeler's memoir reminds us that there are drafty, run-down homes to be fixed, bug bites to cure (with nary a 24-hour drugstore in sight), and a lack of eligible bachelors to be found. Nonetheless, grabbing at life when she could is an appealing ideal for many readers, including this reader.
One of the things I loved about this memoir was the full disclosure of both Karen's self-possession and Karen's self-doubt. It was an interesting inside view of the person who took the journey. Maybe it was because of this unique inside look into her life that then had me fully vested in finding her true happiness, in whatever way possible. I loved watching her transform her rundown home into something all her own. From stripping floors to sealing and painting walls, it was so engaging to actually follow her process of remaking her little French home into one she could reside in.
One thing that had me on edge for her were the discussions of her romantic relationships. We start the memoir with a gripping heartache that propels her to France, that I think we all hope will be resolved with great friendships--which I'm not sure the assortment of people she meets fit--or with a love interest--which is hard when they have other motivations. Throughout the book she discusses looking for "suitors" in anyone from her neighbor to the baker in town. There does seem to be this build up to a relationship or sorts, only to have it dropped in the course of about three sentences--literally. For me, the build up of friendships and suitors to a startling resolution left me a bit out of sorts. If we were to spend 200+ pages dropping mention of the importance of relationships, I would hope that we would have a balanced explanation of their place in her life by the end.
Karen Wheeler is a marvelous writer, with an ability to recall her own life story in a novel-like fashion. I was so easily sucked in that my care and concern for her could match any fictional character I've been introduced to. Having said that, the philosophical end to the book felt very unsatisfying and left me sad for Karen, and not upbeat about the entire "finding of oneself" and slowing down that I think I was supposed to take away. On the whole, I have been recommending this memoir right and left, in the hopes that I can come to grips with my own reaction to its ending. It's not possible for me to spell out all the details, but I will say that the reality of it cuts through all that feels escapist or romantic. In short, I loved it and I hated it, both at the same time. I can't say that I've responded so strongly to a book in a very long time, and I'm still left trying to grasp how I felt. Honestly, you really have to read it to find out how Karen wrapped up her memoir. For this reader, I'll admit to wishing that maybe (like in my own life) there was just a bit more fiction to finish it off.
*FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a review copy of the book provided by the publisher.
If you've read this one, PLEASE tell me your own thoughts. I'm dying to discuss it with other readers, so I'd love to hear from you! Did you have the same response that I did?