I realized what a remarkable stroke of luck it was to have lived in a place that was home to one of France’s greatest structures, the Château of Fontainebleau. In my mind, the idea of France remained closely aligned with that great sprawling mass that embodies so much French history. it was both part of the local landscape in my boyhood and — something I understood only much later — a supreme repository of French style, taste, art, and architecture.
Thad Carhart, Finding Fontainebleau
Every parent remembers listening politely (or at least pretending to listen) to their children’s long-winded plot descriptions of their favorite books, movies, or TV shows. As a grade schooler, my younger son had a more succinct way of conveying this information. He described everything in terms of its parentage. I asked him for some contemporary examples, and he offered these: If Lord of the Rings and The Sopranos had a baby, it would be Game of Thrones . . . if Jaws and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition had a baby, it would be The Shallows. (Is there a potential party game in this?)
So . . . if Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and Neither Here Nor There had a baby, the result would be Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France. Thad Carhart’s narrative is a captivating blend of memoir and history, filled with the author’s appreciation and understanding of French culture. He and his wife returned to the land of his early childhood twenty-six years ago, raising two children in Paris and making frequent visits to Fontainebleau.
Four-year-old Thad Carhart arrived in Fontainebleau, a provincial town of about 20,000 an hour away from Paris, in 1954. His father was a staff officer at the NATO command, whose offices were in the Château de Fontainebleau. Whatever his responsibilities entailed — and the reader doesn’t hear much about them — they couldn’t have been much more daunting than what Thad’s mother faced. May Carhart, trained nurse, gifted seamstress, and talented artist, moved five young children across the Atlantic into a large, imposing maison de maître. Despite its seventeen rooms, which included two kitchens and a wine cellar, “the house left much to be desired for a family of seven when modern appliances had already flooded postwar America.”
I’ve read countless books, fiction and nonfiction, that take place during and between the two World Wars in Europe, but very few about postwar Europe. Carhart’s portrait of France in the 1950s is one readers rarely see, where the wounds of the war are still fresh and the country is just beginning to become a modern consumer society. His special gift in Finding Fontainebleau is showing us midcentury France through the eyes of a young child. Carhart’s stories about visiting the beaches of Normandy, watching puppet shows in Paris, attending French kindergarten, and camping on a farm near the southern coast are filled with insight into the French character — and plenty of humor.
How, I asked myself in the opening chapters of the book, could a young child retain such clear and detailed memories? Carhart, who learned to read and write in French before he became literate in English, answers that question in his chapter about his experiences in a French classroom:
It wasn’t until many years later that I understood how much the intensity and newness of everything made me acutely observant. The utter necessity of learning French was akin to plunging into a fast-moving river and having to swim. I learned to watch and listen and name everything as if my life depended on it, which in a way it did — at least my social life. My memories from this time are correspondingly vivid . . . There are many things I recall with greater precision from this tender age than, say, from the first year after our return to America.
The French have a phrase, les mémoires des lieux, which means “the memory of the place”. This reflects, I think, what Carhart calls the “deep reverence of the French for sites that embody important parts of their history.” The Château of Fontainebleau is a national treasure that is in an ongoing state of preservation and restoration. Carhart interperses chapters about his family’s experiences in France with chapters about the history (from the 12th century to the present) of the Château, emphasizing his deep attachment to the Château “as a place that symbolized a certain idea of France itself, and of French attitudes.” The architect in charge of the Château, Patrick Ponsot, allowed Carhart behind-the-scenes access to the restoration project. In a Wall Street Journal interview, Carhart says his book is “not about me or the Carhart family, but it’s meant to be about France. It’s the attitude that although the French are still proudly part of a republic, they will do anything to retain the château and its heritage in the name of all the citizens.” As Ponsot says, “‘How can we know the past if we don’t save some of it?””
Carhart has written two other books —The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier, which was an absolutely delightful work of nonfiction about how buying a used piano led Carhart to rediscover his childhood love for music and helped him connect with his Paris neighborhood, and Across the Endless River, historical fiction about Sacagawea’s son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. All of his books, he says, are concerned with “cultural dissonance . . . the intersection of dissimilar ways of life.”
I savored every page of this book. It even helped me brush up on my French history, although I’m still confused by all those kings named Louis. The book made me want to visit Fontainebleau, or at least eat a warm baguette. Fortunately, I have plenty of French wine on hand. I wonder if kindergarteners in France still learn math by counting wine bottles? One of the math exercises Carhart recalls was: “If my uncle brings two bottles of wine and puts them in the cellar with my father’s five bottles, how many bottles of wine are there in the wine cellar?”
The publisher, Viking Books, is giving away one copy of Finding Fontainebleau to a Books on the Table reader. Please leave a comment, and I’ll draw names on July 31. Bonne chance!