Saturday, 21 September 2013

All Expenses Paid by Helen Ducal

Review by Bill Kirton

The essence and the fun of this book are encapsulated in a couple of sentences from the blurb. The writer goes to France to take on the ‘simple’ task of looking after ‘an 82 year old English lady’ who looks ‘like everybody’s favourite grandmother until Jean-Louis arrives to pick her up on his Kawasaki 1200’. She discovers later that this old lady, Betty, when she heard that her daughter planned to ship her off to Brittany  to stay with her other daughter, ‘decided to have a slight stroke’.

The text is marked throughout with wit and humour that range from the gentle to the (almost) outrageous. Ducal’s characters (including herself as narrator) are beautifully drawn, not with any ostentation or wordy pretentiousness, but through observation of what they say and do. (The deceptive simplicity of ‘she decided to have a slight stroke’ is an example of the sort of economy I mean.). Ducal and the irrepressible Betty make a terrific couple. They also make a nonsense of the preconceptions about age and competence.

This was written by someone who loves life and knows how to live it. Unlike other British writers who’ve produced self-aware, often patronising books about life in France, Ducal knows what is meant by joie de vivre and contributes her own take on it. She and Betty delight in what the country has to offer and she uses her writer’s gift of observation to identify and select the elements – large and small – that make up its attractive reality. Her voice is clear, direct, inviting as she celebrates her own and Betty’s absorption into French ways. It’s a life-affirming read and it’s also great fun.