A book like Paris My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (And Dark Chocolate) by Amy Thomas should really come packaged with a box of the chocolates (or other confections) that she writes about. This is not a book you want to pick up on an empty stomach, as reading about such delights as macarons or pain au chocolat knowing you can't just go out and buy some for yourself is almost cruel. Then again, just reading about French chocolates and pastries and other glorious desserts (and bread!) is calorie free, so there is no guilt associated with reading rather than eating. Is there such a thing as a food memoir? If so, this is one. Thomas weaves together her experiences as an American expat in Paris with her love of chocolate and all things sweet. The result is as light and fluffy as some of the confections she describes.
Thomas was in an enviable position when in 2008 she was working in a New York advertising agency and was offered the plum job of writing copy for their Louis Vuitton account, which included a move to Paris. She had already had a long standing love affair with the city since her college days when she studied abroad and then only a few months prior to the offer had spent a summer vacation there. She called it her Tour du Chocolat and wrote about it for the New York Times. A week spent visiting the various chocolatiers and 'Vélib'ing' about wasn't enough to satiate her desire for the decadent city, so she left behind her comfortable NYC situation, friends and family and embarked on a journey of self-discovery and all things sweet.
In each chapter Thomas takes the reader with her as she sets out to discover and sample the best that Paris has to offer. Starting with her Tour du Chocolat and ending with Pain Perdu she visits pâtisseries, chats with chefs, shares a little history and writes about her experiences living and working in Paris often contrasting it with her life in New York City. At the time Thomas was a thirty-something singleton with high expectations and hopes of fitting in with her French colleagues and perhaps finding love and happiness. She quickly discovered how difficult it was to find her niche amongst the close knit French community that she was a part of. Dating was often a nightmare and work challenging with a clash of cultures. And then there was the language, which she felt she should have a better grasp of, but which continued to occasionally be perplexing.
There are lots of interesting bits about what it's like to be an American expat in Paris and what perceptions she had about France and French people and then the inevitable reality, which ended up so often being different. Still, when Thomas would return home for visits she knew she knew she was falling in love with Paris, even if she wasn't necessarily falling in love otherwise. While her friends were moving on in their lives and pairing up she was taking a different path filled with uncertainty. There's a certain amount of introspection in the book, but not always a lot of depth, which I would have enjoyed a little more of, but that's a small quibble for all the other delights she writes about. Thomas is, however, a likable narrator and it's hard not to enjoy her chatty, gossipy writing style.
If you're a chocolate, or sweets in general, aficionado, this is a fun read and is very much a tour of all things delicious á la Paris and NYC. There's lots of name dropping in terms of places to find the best of the best from everything from cupcakes to madeleines and on both sides of the Atlantic.
"These shell-shaped teacakes (madeleines)from the town of Commercy in northeastern France date back to the eighteenth century. Made with génoise batter, which relies heavily on eggs, the edges bake to a dark golden color while the rest of the cake remains a sunny yellow."
The best in Paris? Blé Sucré, Fabrice Le Bourdet's pâtisserie on Square Trousseau. It's obvious that Thomas knows her stuff. When she calls herself a "girl obsessed with sweets", she's not kidding. There are also copious lists with addresses, phone numbers and websites should you want to try some of the sweets she writes about. This is a book you could take with you for a sweet hop in either Paris or NYC I would imagine. I wonder if any of them deliver?
Do check out Amy Thomas's long running blog, Sweet Freak, in case you need visuals to tempt you. If you're looking for a companion read consider Chocolat by Joanne Harris, one of my all time favorite books. Thanks to Sourcebooks for sending this book my way.