WHAT FRENCH WOMEN KNOW
About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind
It’s not the shoes, the scarves, or the lipstick that gives French women their allure. It’s this: French women don’t give a damn. They don’t expect men to understand them. They don’t care about being liked or being like everyone else. They accept the passage of time; celebrate the immediacy of pleasure; embrace ambiguity and imperfection; and prefer having a life to making a living. In What French Women Know, Debra Ollivier goes beyond stale ooh-la-la stereotypes, challenging ingrained notions about sex, love, marriage, motherhood, and everything in between. With savvy, provocative thinking from French mistresses and maidens alike,
It’s not the shoes, the scarves, or the lipstick that gives French women their allure. It’s this: French women don’t give a damn. They don’t expect men to understand them. They don’t care about being liked or being like everyone else. They accept the passage of time; celebrate the immediacy of pleasure; embrace ambiguity and imperfection; and prefer having a life to making a living. In What French Women Know, Debra Ollivier goes beyond stale ooh-la-la stereotypes, challenging ingrained notions about sex, love, marriage, motherhood, and everything in between. With savvy, provocative thinking from French mistresses and maidens alike, Ollivier presents a refreshing counterpoint to the tired love dogma of our times, and offers realistic, liberating alternatives from the land that knows how to love.
- 272 Pages
“Ollivier…lays out a Gallic prescription for living a life that is richer, more sensual, messier, and a lot more fun.”
“[Ollivier is] ideally suited to contrast and compare the two cultures that seem to fascinate—and irritate—each other.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Chuck all your self-help books, tout de suite. Debra Ollivier’s sharp-eyed and witty examination of the French mystique is nothing less than a guidebook to a happy life. What French Women Know is a fascinating alternative to how we Americans view love and sex, as well as a fresh perspective on being a mother, lover, wife, and wearer of kick-ass lingerie.”
—Karen Karbo, author of How to Hepburn: Lessons on Living from Kate the Great
“Ollivier…has the advantage of being a consummate insider with an outsider’s cool candor.…Whether you want to go Gallic all the way, or just add a soupçon of French femininity, this is a good place to start. Have fun!”—BookPage
In France, French girls do not pick flowers and ponder love with “He loves me, he loves me not;” rather they say “He loves me a little. A lot. Passionately. Madly. Not at all.” Ollivier uses this as a metaphor throughout the book to illustrate how French women are groomed to think not in terms of absolute love or total rejection, but in nuances, degrees of passion, possibilities, and shades of gray. How has our tendency to be binary about love (He loves me, he loves me not) influenced our relationships? How might this mindset conspire against freedom and the ability to enjoy men, with or without closure? How would you be different if you grew up looking at love not in black-and-white, but in shades of gray?
French women are experience-driven and prefer to set things in motion, whereas Americans tend to be more goal-oriented and prefer to set things in stone. Says Ollivier: “For French women it’s okay if the emotional integrity of a relationship lies in the experience of it alone and not necessarily in its outcome or ultimate resolution.” How does being too goal-oriented shortchange us of experiences that might not lead to marriage, but that might enhance our lives in important ways? Have you cut short relationships that had no clear-cut goal in sight, only to regret the emotional currency you might have gained in them?
French women don’t care about being liked and being like everyone else. They know the fine art of not giving a damn. Ollivier suggests that this cultural difference gives French women a sense of self-possession and strength that positively affects their relationships with men. What might we be like if we grew up as do French women, in a land where there is no word for–or pressure to be–”popular”? How would you live your emotional life differently if you cared less about what others thought of you? Would you make different choices in your life in the realm of love? What would those choices be?
Happiness is written into our Declaration of Independence and the Happy Ending is written into our constitution. Not so in France. “French women generally don’t strive for exalted standards of happiness,” writes Ollivier, “nor do they strive for exalted standards of moral perfection … because the inherent futility of both has been ingrained in her culture for centuries.” To what extent does our enduring belief in Happily Ever After create unrealistic expectations in relationships? Why do we still believe in it despite everything that contradicts it? What cues might we take from French women in this regard?
To what extent does our quest for perfection create love relationships that are far from perfect? To what extent does it set the bar to impossible heights? What might we learn from French women when it comes to accepting or understanding the vagaries and imperfections of men?
French women are wary of the culture of eternal self-transformation and self-improvement. Rather than consistently trying to “improve” themselves, or finding the “right” way to be or look, French women tend to accept who they are (or make the most of their assets and quirks) and create their own personal narratives. How might this create more satisfaction and personal freedom in relationships? Does the culture of eternal self-transformation diminish opportunities for more passion and pleasure in life? How would you live your life differently if you didn’t feel the need to fix, change, improve, or modify everything about yourself? How might that change your love relationships?
French women embrace the idea of jolie laide. They reject packaged beauty and the desire to look “generically pretty and tragically the same.” According to Ollivier, “this gives them enough feminine guile and freedom to assert themselves as sensual beings no matter what they look like.” How do our notions of perfect beauty–and our quest for such–affect our relationships? How might it undermine our ability to be self-possessed like French women–or to “not give a damn”? How would your love life be different if you grew up in a culture that embraces the virtues of jolie laide?
French women believe in the seductive attributes of an inner life. They believe that smart is sexy. Their allure lies not in their surface glam, but in their capacity to nurture an inner life. How does this conspire against our more Anglo-Saxon notions of seduction?
“Individuals aren’t responsible for the failure of marriage,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. “It’s the institution itself that’s the problem.” Ollivier riffs off this cultural reality in describing how French women view marriage–as a commitment that must be entered carefully, even warily, without forgetting that marriage is an emotional contract, not a business contract. How has the matrimonial business in America, coupled with the enduring belief in Happily Ever After, influenced our views of marriage? To what extent do you agree with Simone de Beauvoir? Like many French women, do you believe that we can blame unrealistic pressures within the confines of marriage for the failure of so many marriages? What should be told to young women who aren’t ready to tie the knot but feel social pressure to do so?
French women are private, not public. To them, the overly zealous effort to break down boundaries is what compromises intimacy in the end. How has our tell-all culture compromised intimacy? Is there (seductive) value in not telling all? In keeping things to ourselves? To what extent might the heart grow weary–and the libido head south–when we insist on telling or sharing everything–no matter how painful or what the emotional cost?
One French woman describes her compatriots as having “a keen sense of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure.” Ollivier views this as a significant defining difference with respect to Americans, who have a keen sense of “the brevity of pleasure and the immediacy of the future.” Do you agree? How does an emphasis on the future and on long-term goals influence our relationships? How does preparing for (or bracing against) the future rob us of an ability to appreciate the moment and what bearing does this have on experiencing “the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure”? What choices would you make differently if you lived with this French mantra in your head?
French women are not fond of rules, do-and-don’ts, relationship experts/gurus, how-to dogma, or tools and techniques for finding love. They reject anything designed to legislate or otherwise manage their experience of love and sex. How has our tendency to embrace rules and “outsource love” affected (negatively or positively) our love relationships? What rules do you think impinge on your sense of personal freedom?
The notion that one can find an All-in-One mate–lover, housecleaner, best friend, provider, partner, confidant, father–is considered quixotic to most French women. How does the drive to find the “multipurpose mate” compromise our relationships? What do French women gain by questioning the realism of the All-in-One partner?
Art de vivre has less to do with wine and cheese and more to do with not running our lives like business enterprises. French women reject the notion that we have-it-all/do-it all. They have “broken the codes of the bourgeoisie.” To what extent do these have-it-all/do-it-all pressures knock the wind out of our love relationships? What aspects of your life conspire against your ability to let go and enjoy the moment?
Older French women are sexy not because they pine away to look young, but because they are comfortable being grown-ups. They don’t believe in being–or looking–forever young. When does “age-defying” become “age-denying”? How does this affect our relationships to ourselves and, by extension, to men? How does it affect our ability to age gracefully and still assume our sensuality as women? Are looking sexy and feeling sexy the same thing?
In America kids are King. Not so in France. French women expect children to adapt to the grown-up world–not the other way around. How does this help French women sanctify and nurture their private lives? If the sexless marriage is a celebrity in America, to what extent can we blame our tendency to overparent? What cues can we cull from French women in this regard?
French mothers often perceive American culture as fostering two parenting extremes–that of self-sacrificing über moms or hot mamas. Do you agree? How does our culture influence us into living in these extremes and forsaking the middle ground? How might these extremes compromise not only our parenting, but our relationships with our partners?
Contrary to public perception, French women are matter-of-fact about the body. They do not dramatize or sensationalize sex. If they seem more laissez-faire about the business of the body, it’s in great measure because French culture has made them that way. (In other words they grow up that way.) How does our culture sensationalize sex? To what extent does this influence our ability to view sex and the body with more natural ease? To what extent does Puritanism play a role here? What aspects of our culture conspire against being matter-of-fact about the body–and what ramifications does this have when it comes to love and sex? What cues can we take from French women with regard to raising children who grow up more at ease in their own skin-literally?