Book Reviews

Postcards from France-a book review

My copy of Megan McNeill Libby’s Postcards from France shows its age. The paperback cover is fraying, the pages yellowed with wear, not to mention the price on the back is also a testament to how long ago I bought it, a whopping $4.99  It’s not just a book I read time and time again, it’s one I truly cherished as a teenager and have enjoyed becoming reacquainted with again as an adult.
I can’t remember when I first discovered the book, but I just knew that a young adult read whose cover promised “a delightfully irresistible charming account of a young American girl’s year abroad” aptly described me (or at least a book I knew I would like). I had yet to step foot outside of the United States at this point (the late 1990s), but I was patiently greasing the wheels, biding my time until I was of age to be an exchange student (most programs wanted you to be at least 15, if not older).
At the tender age of 15, Megan Libby travels to France where she is to be an exchange student for the year. While abroad, each month she writes a column for her local newspaper back home, sharing with its readers the trials and tribulations of being a teenage exchange student in a foreign country. Out of these monthly columns developed the inspiration for her book, Postcards from France. 
Postcards from France is a young adult book, a mere 141 pages, but Libby’s writing style would you lead you to believe she is anything but a teenager. Although the book was published long before the obnoxious advent of teenagers and cell phones going hand in hand, along with their inability to perform bibliographic research but still capable of being on Facebook 24/7, Libby still doesn’t come across as the typical teenager. This is exactly the reason why I feel the book would appeal to all demograhics.
For anyone who has ever lived or traveled abroad in a country where you don’t speak the language, you’ll immediately sympathize with Libby when she writes on page 8, shortly after her arrival in France:
“My host family was waiting at the train station to welcome me. They were warm and welcoming. I was exhausted and hungry. I could tell they were asking me questions about my trip, but I might as well have been on another planet for all I could understand or say. Surely it is not possible to speak English that fast.”
But once past the arduous point known as culture shock, living abroad has immense benefits, including becoming well acquainted with the cuisine of the host country.  
“In Valence, eating well is taken for granted. The reason is easy to see. Fruits, vegetables, and herbs for the whole country are produced there, in addition to the crusty bread, croisstants, sweet butter, thick jam, honey, wheels of creamy cheese, olives, melons from Cavaillon, peaches and pears.”
Of course the subject of food is also where one can encounter the most cross-cultural blunders. One of the funniest moments in the book is when Libby, along with another American exchange student in her town, decide to organize an American style Thanksgiving meal, a doomed effort almost from the get-go:
“I’ll never know exactly what happened at the supermarche. All I know is that what Mrs. Rollet returned with was no ordinary-looking bird. In fact, it was no bird at all. Apparently she was unimpressed with the dindes (turkeys), so she bought a deer!”
As a language learner myself, I immediately felt for Libby when she writes how proud she was to have asked for the preserves to be passed to her, only to discover that she had actually asked for the condoms to be passed instead (in French preservatifs does not mean preserves). Although this particular language faux pas never happened to me, I heard enough stories of a person saying they were “embarazada” when in reality it actually means pregnant. I’m sure there were a couple of double looks given when a guy said this. 
Living in a foreign country is a lot like climbing a mountain, a slow, sometimes difficult path to the top, but once you make it past a certain point, the rest is a rewarding and exhilirating experience. Libby’s book is exactly like this metaphor and is a delightful read from start to finish. You don’t know her, but you feel as if you’re her friend, sitting alongside her as she pens each postcard from France.

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  • Reply
    March 21, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    2 months after I graduated from high-school, I left home to be an exchange student for a year in France, and reading this book review just reminded me of all the similar experiences that I had in what was probably the most challenging, crazy, fun 10 months of my life 🙂 I will never forget my first evening in France with a host family that was very nice and even tried to speak English to me at dinner that night.. I can remember all the food experiences- my first disgusting encounter with aspic (that gross gelatinous meat concoction), my growing appreciation for European cheese (which I love now), even having raw horse! Haha, yep there were many interesting aspects of that year.

    My mom bought me a book called “Betsy and the Great World” by Maud Hart Lovelace– something she picked out for my plane trip there. Just as you describe, it is all very sentimental to me now, and something that I will never forget. I have not had the chance to go back to Europe since I returned almost 8 years ago now, but I know I will someday, and return to all those places that hold so many memories! 🙂

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    March 22, 2011 at 1:38 am

    Aspic and horse-what culinary awakenings for a teen! I think doing a gap year between high school & college is such an enriching experience 🙂 So neat that you had such incredible memories!

  • Reply
    March 26, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Oooh, looks like I have another book to add to my “read when I find free time list”. Thanks for the recommendation!

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