Author On the Bookcase: Debra Ollivier, author of What French Women Know

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Author On the Bookcase
Debra Ollivier

Debra OllivierI'm so thrilled to welcome Debra Ollivier, author of What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind, to On the Bookcase. Debra writes that French women don’t give a damn. They don’t expect men to understand them. They don’t care about being liked or being like everyone else. They accept the passage of time; celebrate the immediacy of pleasure; embrace ambiguity and imperfection; and prefer having a life to making a living. American women might learn the basics of the liberating alternatives from the land that knows how to love. 

Bon Jour! Comment ca va? Debra, tell us about how studying French women led to a increase awareness of your our (American) culture. 

I wrote What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind partly out of frustration with the oo-la-la clichés recycled about French women. I lived in France for over ten years and all of the French women I know defy the cultural cream puffs thrown our way about their fashion, their infuriating lack of body fat, their lipstick, lingerie and high heels.  If French women seem so alluring and knowing, it has little to do with their surface glam and everything to do with their mindsets --  provocative things that are hardwired into them by French culture. I wanted to write a book that explored these things. Little did I know that in writing my book, I'd view my own culture through a different prism  and debunk a few enduring myths along the way.

For starters, contrary to what one might imagine I’m not a Francophile, though as a girl I was intrigued by French women and their “otherness” – or their “je ne sais quoi.” Like many American girls I vacillated between the desire to be cheerfully “popular” (a word and concept, by the way, that does not exist in the French lexicon) and the desire to be different -- in other words, to be myself. At the time French women seemed like icons of freedom precisely because their identity seemed all about being different. Their sophistication seemed wrapped up in the way they diverged from the aggressively sunny imperatives of “happy” and “perfection” that dominated my American girlhood. They were certainly a sensual and eclectic counterpart to the cookie-cutter beauty standard advocated around me. More importantly, they did indeed seem to have an elusive knowingness about them, and an ability to experience pleasure and enjoy men in ways that contradicted the zeitgeist of my own culture.

Decades later, the countless French women from all walks-of-life who I interviewed for the book described how these attributes play out in the realm of love, sex, dating (another word/concept that doesn’t exist in French), feminism (including why there's more complicity with men than commiseration about them), flirtation, marriage, parenting, adultery (it's not what you think!), aging, the perils of perfection and Happily Ever After, the dangers of dos-and-don’ts,  and art de vivre.

One interesting insight was the extent to which these attributes are fused into French women when they’re girls. For example, unlike American girls, French girls don’t grow up picking petals and pondering love with ‘He loves me, he loves me not.’ Rather, when they pick petals and ponder love, they intone: ‘He loves me a little, a lot, passionately, madly, not at all.’ Far more than an innocent schoolgirl refrain, this potent metaphor perfectly describes the different ways we look at love: While we grow up thinking in black and white, French women grow up inscrutably gray. While we grow up stuck in the absolutes of total love or utter rejection, the French girl grows up looking at love in nuances and as a range of possibilities. While we long for happy endings, they’re comfortable with emotional subtleties and ambiguity.

What French Women KnowSimilarly, one pressure that bears down on American girls is the pressure not only to be liked, but to be like everyone else. The wicked stress of that effort insinuates itself into the young heart and soul with a vengeance, and insecurities go from being hard little buds of confusion to overripe, tyrannical fruits that hang on the vine as we age. The cultural norms wired into the French brain at an early age, however, are almost exactly the opposite. If you don’t fit a standard mold, you’re alluring. If you look like everyone else, there’s something not right about you.  Sameness is suspect, "imperfections" are exalted and, as I mentioned, “popularity” – the word, the concept – never enters the French girl’s consciousness. No wonder many French women are so self-possessed they often don’t seem to give a damn what we think of them. (News flash: they don’t.)

Fast-forward: I’ve been fascinated by questions and discussions from readers about “What French Women Know.” Some of them are complex; others are deceptively simple. I’ll never forget one woman who asked how she could “be more French.” I told her that the point of the book is not to “be” French, nor is it, coming full circle, about emulating the surface glam we so often associate with French women. The point, if it can be distilled it to its essence, might be found in what was said by Michelle Fitoussi, the executive editor of French Elle. When I asked Fitoussi what she thought was the singular most defining thing about French women, she pondered a moment, then said: “French women have a keen sense of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure.”
What a fitting counterpart, I thought (particularly since we Anglo-Saxons often have a keen sense of the brevity of pleasure and the immediacy of the future).

We will never “be” French – nor should we be -- but it wouldn’t hurt to live with Fitoussi’s mantra in our heads. It certainly might change the way we experience love and sex, not to mention other matters of the heart and mind.

Merci, Debra! Thanks so much for your ideas and giving us some topics for reading group discussion -- happy endings vs with "emotional subtleties and ambiguity," sameness vs otherness,  French culture vs American culture.

Praise for What French Women Know

"[Ollivier is] ideally suited to contrast and compare the two cultures that seem to fascinate--and irritate--each other." --Los Angeles Times

"A Gallic prescription for living a life that is richer, more sensual, messier, and a lot more fun" -- Boston Globe

Debra Ollivier lived in France for ten years, during which time she married her French husband and had two children. She was a frequent contributor to Salon and La Monde, and her work has appeared in Harper’s, Playboy, The Guardian, and Les Inrockuptibles. Also the author of Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl, Ollivier lives with her family in Los Angeles and Paris.

Find more about Debra on her website.

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