Jayne Tuttle’s memoir, Paris or Die, is a literary suitcase packed with sparkling friendships, startling discoveries, mad love, intriguing challenges and hot sex. Quite a bit of hot sex, in fact. There’s also mortal danger and helpless loss, both of which signal their presence in the very first chapter. Tuttle, a writer, actor and charismatically charming first-time author, takes us on quite a journey. Her writing is pitch-perfect and pacy – very, very funny at times, and raw and affecting at others. With death and heartbreak as ever-present themes, Paris or Die is also deeply moving.
Tuttle, who first goes to Paris as an au pair, and returns a few years later in her late 20s to study at the Jacques Lecoq theatre school, finds herself lost in translation many a time. There’s much obvious comedy to be made from linguistic misunderstanding, but Tuttle, who goes from near-zero to fluent over the years in France, manages to make it fresh – just as she does each tumble into the cultural chasm. At one point, someone tells the naturally ebullient Australian that she’ll never sound French, no matter how fluent she gets, if she can’t wipe the smile from her voice. She tries, fails, and considers whether she even wants to succeed at this particular task.
Like anyone who has lived overseas in some state of infatuation with their new home, Tuttle frequently confronts her own idealisation of Paris and issues of personal identity. A witty and observant raconteur, and merciless chronicler of her own foibles, she’s like the love child of David Sedaris and Helen Garner. At a party, at the exact moment Tuttle – until that point a vegetarian – bites into a sausage, she claps eyes on a Frenchman so beautiful, so cool and so French that he seems to have stepped out of her fantasies. In all the time they are together, Adrien never finds her joke about the coincidence of meeting him and eating meat for the first time anything but excruciating. Their relationship is an exquisite study of what happens to the wild force of attraction when it crashes into the hard structures of societal, class and cultural difference. As much as I loved this book, I do hope “Adrien”, who I’m guessing may be the “SD” mentioned in the acknowledgements, agreed to their story being told in such intimate detail. A kiss-and-tell, like a kiss itself, should involve consent, non?
Hardie Grant, 256pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 7, 2019 as "Jayne Tuttle, Paris or Die".
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