Fans of Thad Carhart’s bestselling 2001 memoir, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, will be glad to know that his latest book, Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France, offers a similar mix of memoir, history and wonderful digressions about France.
Carhart spent several years of his 1950s childhood in the village of Fontainebleau, France, where his Air Force pilot dad served as a staff officer at NATO (then headquartered at Chateau de Fontainebleau). Finding Fontainebleau’s main narrative follows the family, five kids ages 2 to 12 and their beleaguered parents, as they settled into an immense old house next door to the chateau. Carhart recounts adjusting to to French Catholic school, both its strictures—including Saturday classes—and pleasures—1950s French schoolboys were as crazy for marbles and coonskin caps as American boys. The family’s daily life mixed French and American: They shopped for food at the traditional outdoor market and boulangeries as well as the American military commissary, and had wine delivered (35 cents a bottle); and they piled into their Chevy wagon, heading to Paris for Carhart’s dad’s fencing competitions, and on near-disastrous camping trips in the French countryside and in Spain and Italy.
The book’s other narrative gives us a lively history of Chateau de Fontainebleau, built in 1137 as a hunting lodge, then added on to by successive kings, queens, and two Napoleons. Carhart takes us into closed-off rooms, where architects, carpenters, and other craftsmen work at restoration. He sees the rambling chateau, with its idiosyncratic additions, as a more fitting symbol of France than the more well-known Versailles.
Throughout, Carhart turns his observant eye on small, sometimes odd-seeming details—the once-ubiquitous Turkish toilets in cafes, the uniquely French method of taking household inventory, French cars of the 1950s. These lovely digressions, along with Carhart’s own family’s story, illuminate French culture in an appealing way.