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Excerpt: 'Mademoiselle Benoir'

Rona Brinlee of The Bookmark in Atlantic Beach, Fla., recommends Mademoiselle Benoir by Christine Conrad in her conversation about summer reading with Susan Stamberg on Morning Edition. It is a love affair that unfolds entirely in letters.

April 1998

Mas La Viguerie

Dear Mom,

To my amazement, Mlle. Benoir, Mme. LeDuc's sister, called during the week to invite me to lunch, and today I went to Château de la Rive, a day without a cloud in the sky and the air like silk. I don't know what I was expecting, but it was so much more extraordinary than anything I could have imagined.

The entrance to the château is actually no big deal. In fact, I passed right by it on the road, as I guess I had conjured up Versailles-like grandeur, a great long drive or some such thing, and so had to backtrack. You enter the property right smack off the road and into a circular driveway. What you see at first is essentially a three-story blond-stone manor house, very, very nice, very architecturally pleasing, but not overwhelming if you're looking for a château.

Mme. LeDuc— "call me Pauline"— came to the door to greet me. She then led me through a large cluttered rectangular foyer— with paintings hung floor to ceiling — which cut through the center of the house to a set of double doors that opened onto the back. As we walked outside, I had to catch my breath, literally, as I suddenly saw where I really was, in a magnificent parc that seemed to extend for acres and acres, with terraced gardens, an orangerie, tennis court, numerous vegetable gardens, rose gardens, and vineyards cascading down to the river. I could hardly take it all in.

Under a giant cedar tree, a few women were setting four large rectangular tables for lunch. (Later I realized they were daughters-in-law, shades of your daughter-inlaw story!) Mme. LeDuc, who held me tightly by the arm, said that we would be having lunch in a half-hour and then introduced me to a young blond woman named Valerie. She suggested that Valerie show me the grounds. Valerie blushed several shades of red, and I got the impression that Mme. LeDuc was pushing us together, but I could have been mistaken. Maybe Valerie is just a very shy girl.

Anyway, Valerie walked me through the parc to see the vineyards, which terrace down to the river. She explained that the property had ten hectares of vineland, and that the château produces a small number of bottles every year under its own label. It used to be a much bigger operation, but they have scaled back, and this year the wine has been very good. She said that she was studying viniculture and then said a lot of other things about the type of grapes grown, but this whole wine-growing thing is still an unknown subject for me and I just nodded along. I tried to make a little joke about how little I knew, and she looked at me really strangely. I have no idea what she thought I said, and I hope it wasn't too awful.

As we walked back toward the house, sunlight was bouncing off the immense cedar tree, the tables had red and white tablecloths, the place settings were a wild variety of the brightest blues and yellows, and about a dozen small blond children were scooting around on little tricycles. I kept thinking, Is this place for real? Are these people for real? Have I time-traveled back to a scene in a Renoir painting?

Forty people sat down to lunch, as casual as can be. As I would discover, most of them were Pauline's offspring, their wives and/or husbands, and the assorted grandchildren. The little children were amazingly polite and full of fun — not wild and loud and out of control as American kids would be. There must have been at least twenty multicolored tricycles scattered around the lawn. The kids all seem to have double names for some reason, like Lisette- Marie, Paul-Henri. It was hard to keep track. Pauline LeDuc and her husband, Pierre— a tall, big-boned man with wild hair and a shambling walk— are at the château for their annual sojourn. All their children with their various offspring are there as well. They stay mainly in what I guess is the "adjunct château." I don't know what it was originally. Maybe where the staff lived at the turn of the century? Anyway, now there is no staff at all that I could see, except for two local women who helped bring out food from the kitchen.

The lunch was very simple and almost all of it had been produced in the château gardens: several different kinds of omelets, tomatoes, zucchini, green bean salad, melons, peaches, figs. As we ate the food, we also talked about it. Weren't the figs delicious? . . . Figs are my absolute favorite . . . The peach trees ripened late this year. . . The melons are not as good as last year. I went into sensual food overload, just soaking it all in, letting it was over me.

I was seated at a table next to Mme. LeDuc's sister Catherine Benoir. Sitting on the other side of her was one of her young grandnieces, and they were sweet with each other, laughing together over their little private jokes.

Mlle. Benoir was very charming to me. She had a lot of questions about my house and its origins. She said she had never been to my commune, and I invited her to visit when she had time. I told her that I had recently discovered that the round brick structure on my property is a pigeonnier and that I was fascinated by it. Since my previous experience of pigeons consisted of watching Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront tend them on his rooftop — not to mention the piles of bird poop all over New York — I said I was interested to see that pigeon keeping was a hobby in France, too. Oh no, not a hobby, she told me. Over centuries, on the farmlands of France, pigeon manure was highly prized given that other kinds of manure were so much harder to obtain. A pigeonnier on the property was a sign of wealth. When she saw my reaction, she laughed, recognizing right away that I wasn't exactly Farmer Tim yet.

And so the day just drifted by. If it were not the French countryside, it could have been a lazy day in Chekhov's Russia. Think The Seagull. The more I live here, the more I realize that in France "eating" is not just shoveling some stuff down your throat, but a semireligious rite, as it gives the double opportunity of good food and good talk, two forms of aesthetic enjoyment the French really value. I can understand how over time the appreciation of food became an antidote to chaos. During the endless religious wars, even if there was little to eat, life continued in its intrinsically French way. Your neighbor might be accused of heresy, but one sat down with a good piece of bread, foie gras, and a bottle of wine no matter what.

At some point, I began a very quick sketch of one of the children on a paper napkin. She was so excited by it that her enthusiasm spread like a virus to all the minuscules— Catherine Benoir's name for the littlest children — and created quite a commotion. So then I had to make yet another little sketch, then another, until finally the mothers reined in the children, and I promised I would come back to make more sketches. I got a lot of compliments from the adults: how quickly I drew, so accurate, so beautiful, merveilleux, splendide.

The sisters told many stories of their childhood and their parents. I have come to admire the French spirit and toughness. I have also come to understand completely their hostility to the invasion of American fast food and Franglais. They have over two thousand years of continuous history, and here comes this flashy new stuff from the outside, with nothing especially positive to offer, just perhaps, oh, the complete destruction of their society. Change may be inevitable, but for the French, tradition is an anchor. Change without underpinning, without good soil beneath it, is just scorched earth. It seems to me that their fierceness in protecting their identity and traditions is what has kept this land together for so long.

By the end of the afternoon, I was both tired and flying high, as if I had been smoking dope all afternoon.

Your son,


Excerpted from Mademoiselle Benoir by Christine Conrad. Copyright © 2006. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved.

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Christine Conrad