By David Lebovitz
Paris is such a beautiful city that fascinates so many Americans. We romanticize it and fantasize about living there. David Lebovitz is one American who has done so and been kind enough to share his experiences over the years. His accounts, with a sprinkle of French phrases, keep the romance but add a large dose of incredulous bemusement at French life and behavior. In the past he has focused on the bureaucracy, with the frustration and circular logic and zero concept of customer service, and frequent strikes that always seem to fall at the time when you most need to get somewhere. He can match Bill Bryson in conveying that sense of immersion in a culture with a little wink of amusement.
In L’Appart, Lebovitz focuses on the tribulations of buying and remodeling an apartment in Paris. Tired of renting and wanting a real kitchen where he can do his cookbook recipe development, he goes through bureaucratic hoops and almost a year to finally buy an apartment with the intent of remodeling it to suit his needs. The book starts out with him peeing in a cup at the doctor’s office to get a health check in order to obtain a mortgage (WHAT??). He hires a contractor based on the recommendation of one friend, somehow despite knowing architects in the city. Here the escapades turn a bit dark and more than a little cringe-inducing. The contractor’s repeated mistakes and longer and longer absences, coupled with an electrician with what seems to be a personality disorder, turn from bad to horrifying. Lebovitz is increasingly stressed and angry. The frustrations of issuing check after check for work that never gets done, is done incorrectly, and even to correct mistakes that the contractor made, really transfers to the reader. It stops being fun and starts being a bit more Kafka than Bryson. It’s sad, and horrifying, and stressful. Toward the end, it’s gone terribly wrong and Lebovitz finds competent help to correct the numerous, egregious, and life-threatening errors made by the incompetent contractor (CO2 being pumped in to the apartment, a fuse box full of melting wires, a sub-floor heating system that would surely shock anyone with wet feet, a mistake in the basement that could compensate the stability of the building, etc.). It’s mortifying. The problems are corrected and Lebovitz moves on with his life in Paris, but not before the reader is left in shock over the injustice. It’s really awful. There is no resolution with the contractor, who is presumably still out there in the world screwing up other people’s apartments. Lebovitz even goes to a lawyer, who says there is nothing to be done.
The 25 recipes look delicious and come with Lebovitz’s charming introductions that lay out a little story and a bit about the food. I haven’t tried any but I have no doubt they are delicious. Some (Lemon Yogurt Cake) are more approachable than others (Kouign Amann).
I continue to adore David Lebovitz, but I would not strongly recommend this book for a light read. Maybe if you’re thinking of remodeling your home, it is a good cautionary tale to contemplate!
My thanks to Blogging for Books and Penguin Random House for sending me the book free of charge. My opinions are my own.