Apr 1, 2009

Book Review: A Gift from Brittany by Marjorie Price

A Gift from Brittany
I thought at the beginning that A Gift from Brittany would be a book along the lines of Frances Mayes' Tuscany books - "love letters" to Italy that are light, mostly cheerful accounts of life in Tuscany.

Marjorie Price's life-altering experience living in an obscure hamlet in Brittany, France, however, the author describes as a "Memoir of Love and Loss in the French Countryside." Though it has cheerful and colorful aspects, the memoir is a poignant story of love lost but also of true friendship found in an quiet corner of rural France.

A young artist in Chicago in the 1960s, the author Midge decides to travel to Paris for several months, against her parents' wishes. In France she meets Yves, an up and coming artist, and as in a fairy tale story, falls in love and marries the Frenchman. They have a daughter, both continue to paint, and all seems to go well until Yves decides to buy a farm in Brittany. The farm turns out to be several farmhouses, half of a hamlet.

The extensive renovations needed to the farm houses, which Midge finds herself in charge of managing and financing, and Yves' obsession with the idea of his being a great painter, a "genius", is balanced somewhat by Midge's developing friendship with a supportive and sympathetic neighbor, Jeanne.

Jeanne is in her late 60s, cannot read or write, never used a telephone, does not have television, has never traveled to the ocean that is not far away, and has been working all her life without electricity or running water. Jeanne however becomes a protector to Midge, an American who does not know the ways of rural Brittany.

The memoir describes days in Brittany with its difficulties, its disappointments, its successes, as well as the joy of good friendship. The book really tells two stories - the story of an American artist in France transformed by her experience there, and the life story of Jeanne, a simple Breton woman.

Of Jeanne, the author wrote:"Like a messenger heralding her arrival, her low starched white lace coif revealed her to be a Morbihanaise. Everyone greeted her; she struck up a conversation with everyone." The memoir describes how these two helped each other and how in the end, Midge feels regret and wonders if different decisions along the way might have made the final outcomes any different.

Marjorie Price writes with the eye of the artist, with detail and a love of color. Her descriptions of her painting and of landscape easily transport you to Brittany, its farms, coastline, and the feel of its people.
"In summer, the heat was so intense it was a streak of fire on my back and soaked up the moisture on the paper, making it difficult to work with the transparency and fluidity of watercolor. But on cool days, or on days when the fog lingered and moisture hung in the air, I could blend the light of the morning mist with the emerging sun, lay color over color like a theme in a fugue that fades as another unfolds...." - (ch. 15)
I recommend this heart-warming book for its story, its descriptions of people and place, and its exploration of relationships, some that "worked" and others that did not.

I have read A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle and Under the Tuscan Sun, enjoyed them, but had no real desire to read the follow up books that both authors wrote. A Gift from Brittany I found to be much more serious and realistic, and true, and very moving.

Book received from the author for review.


tanabata said...

Thanks for letting me know about this book, it does sound good. I've never been to Brittany but I do love France!

Kaye said...

Hey, of course you get an extra entry and thanks for becoming a follower. It's much appreciated. I just love Laura Childs too. Have you read the scrapbooking series? That one has some great characters in it also. Lots of fun! Good Luck!

Margot said...

This sounds like an excellent memoir. I like the contrast between the two women. Thanks for letting me know about it.

Dave said...

Harvee, sounds like a great story; thanks for the review. I've never been to that part of France, and the book probably would be a good guide. I'll have to track it down.

Anonymous said...

This sounds really good. Thanks for the great review.

Mark David said...

Sounds like a rich and absorbing story. Thanks for the review Harvee. I think I'm gonna put this on my list :)

Tea said...

Enjoyed your review so much, "A Gift from Brittany."

Tea said...

Oh boy, totally tempted to pick up. I've always liked the name Yves, although I might not know how to pronounce it correctly. Would like to paint. How many farmhouses? Love the word hamlet too. Thanks for the recommendation.

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