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Finding Fontainebleau

Finding Fontainebleau by Thad Carhart
Hardcover
May 17, 2016 | 304 Pages
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Praise

“While bringing alive this redolent Gallic chapter of his boyhood (baguettes from the boulangerie; inkwells and laborious handwriting exercises at school), Mr. Carhart also resurrects the mood and mores of a particular window in time: the 1950s of Ike and Elvis’s America, and postwar France. . . . Like the castle, his memoir imaginatively and smoothly integrates multiple influences, styles and whims.”The New York Times

“A lovely snapshot of daily life in a bygone France, as well as a tribute to the artistic and architectural glories of this centuries-old royal palace, a predecessor to Versailles.”Newsday

“Perfect . . . [A] giant jigsaw puzzle of history, reminiscence and anthropological detail which paint a complicated but indelible picture…. Details, impressions, memories—and what the author does with them—are the heart and soul of this lovely book.”—The Washington Times

“A vivid picture of the rhythms and flavor of post-war France.”—Northampton Daily Hampshire Gazette

“Carhart turns his observant eye on small, sometimes odd-seeming details—the once-ubiquitous Turkish toilets in cafes, the uniquely French method of taking household inventory, French cars of the 1950s. These lovely digressions, along with Carhart’s own family’s story, illuminate French culture in an appealing way.”—BookPage

“American casualness and exuberance meet French formality and grandeur in this lively, perceptive memoir.”—Publishers Weekly

“The author of The Piano Shop on the Left Bank (2001) returns with another celebration of France…Those lucky enough to have lived and attended school in Europe will love this book, and anyone heading to Paris will surely add Fontainebleau to his or her schedule.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Part memoir, part history, part love letter to France—Thad Carhart’s adopted home—Finding Fontainebleau is a fun, intriguing meditation on time, place, and nationality. I don’t think I can pay it a greater compliment than to report that reading it sent me to Paris’s Gare de Lyon, there to board a train to Fontainebleau, which I saw with new eyes.”—Penelope Rowlands, author of Paris Was Ours
 
“Charming and vivid and sweet, Finding Fontainebleau is full of the hopeful ambiance of Americans discovering France in the post-war era.”—Alice Kaplan, author of French Lessons and Dreaming in French

“Anyone who grew up in an American baby boom split level will love reading about how the undaunted Carhart family moved from utterly predictable suburban Virginia to the utterly unpredictable environs of Fontainebleau. I learned, I laughed, I marveled, I yearned to transport myself to Fontainebleau.”—David Laskin, author of The Family:  A Journey into the Heart of the 20th Century

Finding Fontainebleau is a family memoir, a chronicle of a remarkable palace, and a social history of the vanished world of post-war France. Most illuminating of all, perhaps, it is a guide to the customs and preoccupations of the French, past and present, whom Thad Carhart writes about with humor, insight, and obvious affection.”—Ross King, author of Brunelleschi’s Dome 
 
“Beautifully written, Thad Carhart’s new book is a delight, happily meandering down memory lane through storybook ‘Phone-Ten-Blow.’ Simply marvelous!”—David Downie, author of Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light
 
“Just as Julia Child’s writing about cooking and eating brought to life France in the 1940s, Thad Carhart uses France’s architecture to describe his own childhood in the 1950s. The Palace of Fontainebleau provides a flamboyant backdrop to his stories of adjusting to French schools, the French language and, naturally, French food. Anyone who has ever felt like a fish out of water will be diverted and informed by Finding Fontainebleau.”—John Baxter, author of The Most Beautiful Walk in the World
 
“Thad Carhart’s new memoir has all the charm and the deftness with insider knowledge of his much-loved The Piano Shop On the Left Bank. It’s both hilarious and profound, as he gives us in turn his boy’s eye view of a new country and customs and his adult deep appreciation of France, French history and the particular place, Fontainebleau, of the title. A delight, at all its levels.  I’ve read it twice already… it’s a book to come back to again and again.”—Rosalind Brackenbury, author of Becoming George Sand
 

“A delicious journey into a France we never knew and wish we did. Long before mass tourism and globalization France was simple, soulful, and every inch stimulating. Carhart knew it all and shares this with us with the deftness and insight of a master storyteller.”—Leonard Pitt, author of Walks Through Lost Paris and Paris a Journey Through Time
 

Author Q&A

A CONVERSATION WITH THAD CARHART
 
Q. You’ve lived in Paris for more than twenty-five years and could have chosen any number of subjects that are better known. Why write about Fontainebleau?
 
A. The short answer is that I lived there as a child, and so there has always been a gravitational pull to a place that had such a strong effect on my early life. The longer response is that I came to understand the extraordinary importance of Fontainebleau as a site only as an adult. In that sense my arc has been from the happenstance of childhood to the appreciation that an adult can bring to bear only after learning much more about France. I’ve visited most of the great châteaux of France over the years—Versailles, of course, but also Chambord, Chenonceaux, Vaux-le- Vicomte, Chantilly, and many others. I have my favorites, naturally enough, but I am not the only one to observe that there is no site quite so rich, storied, or delightful as Fontainebleau. It is one of the oldest places continually occupied by the kings of France, a direct connection to medieval times. For example, Thomas Becket, the exiled Archbishop of Canterbury, consecrated the original chapel at Fontainebleau in 1169. A line of rulers favored Fontainebleau from the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance, the French Baroque, the Enlightenment, and past the Revolution to the two Napoleons of the nineteenth century, and each left his mark. Now the French Republic attends to its treasures on behalf of the people of France. My story is twofold: the account of living in this remarkable town as a boy—going to French schools, visiting Paris on weekends—and my return to the Château as a grown-up when I was able to witness significant parts of the ongoing restoration of its rooms by French experts. I think there’s an inherent allure about the site that will capture the imagination of readers once they know the contours of the story.
 
Q. Why is it that Fontainebleau isn’t better known?

A. The simplest reason, I think, is that Versailles occupies the field as the “go to” château for visitors to Paris. Fontainebleau, by contrast, is a kind of Sleeping Beauty that has yet to come into its own. But the reasons are in fact more complex than that. No single personality is associated with Fontainebleau, unlike Louis XIV and Versailles. One of Fontainebleau’s most attractive features is the fact that an unbroken continuum of French art, style, and architecture can be seen intact. A particularly French notion of restraint infuses the rooms: grand, certainly, but seldom showy. Fontainebleau’s subtleties are multiple, and they cohere over time, creating an atmosphere that is both captivating and unique. It takes some time, and some imagination, to drink in its splendors.
 
Q. Many parts of Finding Fontainebleau are written in the same vein as The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. What do you feel are the similarities and the differences?
 
A. I’ve been very lucky with The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. A writer is never entirely sure why a book captures the public’s imagination, but I think a big part of Piano Shop’s appeal has been the look at French life away from the familiar tourist circuit. It’s not that easy to get below the surface of things in France, and readers seem to have been hungry for stories about a French approach to things in Paris. In this respect, Finding Fontainebleau has a similar voice and scope, though the setting of the little Parisian shop is replaced by our family’s big old rented house in Fontainebleau and the adjacent Château. What separates the two books is a focus in Finding Fontainebleau on France in the ’50s, as experienced by an American family. The period covered is greater, too, moving back and forth from my childhood to more recent times, when my wife and I settled in Paris and raised our own children here. A point both books share is the story of two Frenchmen—the shop’s owner, Luc, in Piano Shop; the Château’s chief architect, Patrick Ponsot, in Finding Fontainebleau—who go about their business with a seriousness of purpose coupled with an abiding sense of light humor that could only be French. While Finding Fontainebleau is in no way intended as a kind of “prequel” to Piano Shop, I like to think of them as companion volumes, drawing the reader in to aspects of French life that are otherwise inaccessible. 

Q. Your family arrived in Fontainebleau less than ten years after the
war, and throughout Finding Fontainebleau there’s an almost palpable sense of the war and the occupation in France. Why is this?
 
A. I was born well after the war, so everything associated with it seemed to me at the time like ancient history. But of course a decade is not long at all in historical terms. It was only much later that I came to understand how World War II had shaken the entire country to its core. This was the France we arrived in; it was still recovering from the trauma of battle, privation, shortages, and the presence of the enemy on French soil for four long years. The parts of my narrative that touch on this are the things I noticed as a child: people picking up dropped pieces of coal from the gutter; the shock when my mother found that our babysitter was illiterate because of the war’s convulsions; the discovery that our house had been used to house German officers during the occupation. Only when I returned with my own children did I fully appreciate the remarkable achievement of the French in first surviving, then thriving as a nation. That, too, is part of the book’s story.
 
Q. When you lived in France as a boy, you arrived when you were four years old and left when you were seven. How can you recall so much detail all these years later?
 
A. One important aspect of my time in Fontainebleau in the ’50s is that it was a shared experience, one that our family went through together. Anyone from a big family knows the kind of support and solidarity that arises among siblings when a new adventure is undertaken by all. At first we were almost like colonizers of a new planet, relying on one another for help to get us through some rough patches. Our three years in Fontainebleau became a part of family lore, full of stories, anecdotes, and surprises that we shared again and again over the years. I consulted my siblings carefully about the specifics of my story, as well as about the general contours. There’s another aspect, though, suggested by several readers, that may be even more important in my ability to remember so much from an early age. The fact is that I learned French that first autumn in a kind of “full immersion” setting at school where English was not an option. In a way, I was the luckiest of us five siblings, since I learned to read and write French before English. A reader who is a cognitive psychologist has suggested that my vivid memory from that time likely has as much to do with my learning French at that young age as with regular recall abilities. In fashioning a working knowledge of French, I had to name my surroundings twice, both in English and French. In so doing, the images imprinted on my young brain in a way that would anchor them beyond a regular experience. The “sink or swim” proposition raised the stakes but also my attention. I feel as if becoming French-speaking made the memories of those times far more vivid.
 
Q. In Finding Fontainebleau, as in your other books, you touch on the whole notion of living “in between” two languages, two countries, two cultures. Why is this important?
 
A. My immersion in French during the years in Fontainebleau changed everything. Children aren’t given a vote in such matters; it just happened. As with anyone who grows up conversant in two languages, it altered the way I look at the world, in big ways and small. It meant that I developed a healthy skepticism for occasional French posturing, but also an abiding affection for a country that is far more beguiling than the prevalent ideas of many outsiders would suggest. I don’t regard myself as a missionary for things French, but I do enjoy telling stories that allow others to appreciate the human qualities that still set France apart.

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