Marilyn Yalom-How The French Invented Love

How the French Invented Love  sprang from a lifetime of reading French literature and observing French society.  I wanted to find a way to present my love affair with France to an American public,



Marilyn Yalom is a former professor of French and is currently a senior scholar at the Stanford University Clayman Institute for Gender Research. She is also the author of the History of the Breast and the History of the Wife.

When did you first come to Paris?

I first came to Paris in 1952 as a junior year student from Wellesley College.  Imagine, that was 60 yearsago!  I was well prepared to speak French, but had no idea that France would change my life.

Why have you continued to come back?

I come back to Paris regularly to strengthen my bonds with French culture and to renew myself.  My children and grand-children, who have been with me at various times in France, say that I have two personalities—one American and one French.

What’s your favorite café?

I like the Café de Flore for its literary milieu—it’s here that I meet editors and book store dealers—and I also like the café on the rue Saint Sulpice where you can sit outside looking across the street to the Eglise Saint Sulpice (Café de la Mairie.)

What’s your favorite starred restaurant?

Oh dear, starred restaurants? I don’t think they are starred but I like La Cigale Récamier and Vagenande because of its fin-de-siècle interior and le Procope because I’ve been going there forever.

What’s your favorite bistro du coin?

My favorite bistro no longer exists.  It was downstairs from the apartment I owned on the rue Cassini.  Unfortunately, I don’t own that any longer either.

What’s your favorite market?

I love the Marché Daguerre, especially on a Sunday morning.

What’s your favorite time of the year?

In France it’s definitely autumn.

Talk about the genesis of How The French Invented Love and the process of selecting and researching the chapters.

How the French Invented Love  sprang from a lifetime of reading French literature and observing French society.  I wanted to find a way to present my love affair with France to an American public, which seems less interested in European culture today than when I was a young woman, now that Latin American and Asian cultures loom so large in the American consciousness.  In a way, I stumbled upon love as a subject that I considered key to an understanding of the French, and one that would interest a general American readership.

Once I started outlining my book, the only problem was an embarrassment of riches.  So, true to my formation as a professor of French, I reread many great works of French literature, ranging from the 12th century to the present, and selected only those which still seem to me as truly great and relevant.

What I didn’t plan were all the personal stories that found their way into the book—my observations of French society and stories told me by my many friends.  These, apparently, have been much appreciated by my readers.

What are the most significant contrasts between French and American women?

In general, French women pay more attention to their appearance than American women.  What you wear and how much you weigh contribute heavily to a French woman’s sense of identity, and that includes women of all ages.  Another difference is the French woman’s sense of her role as “femme”—woman and wife (in the same word.)  It seems to me that French women prize that role, even if it comes in conflict with their role as mothers.  American women tend to embrace the role of mother, sometimes to the detriment of their role as wives and partners.

How and why are French men and American men so different in their attitudes  toward women?

This is so complicated.  You’d have to read How the French Invented Love to understand the traditions of courtly love and gallantry that the French have inherited, which, since the Middle Ages, have put the spotlight on Woman, not only as the subject of male desire, but also as the subject of her own desire.

How has Paris affected your life and work?

Palo Alto and Paris have been the two geographical poles of my life for half a century.  In Paris, I don not only a different language, different clothes, and different friends, but also a mental attitude that allows for pleasure.  Art, music, food, and strolling in the city become central to my existence, which cannot be the case for me in California.  Still, I always bring home a whiff of Paris—a haircut from my favorite coiffeuse or chocolates from my favorite pastry shop (Mulot) or the program of an opera or the latest book or magazine to share with my friends.

Author photo: Reid Yalom

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