Dreaming in French

by |
10/28/2009 4:00 AM |

Dreaming in French
By Megan McAndrew
Scribner
Available Now

It’s 1979, and 15-year-old American Charlotte Sanders and her older sister Lea are being raised in “benign anarchy” in Paris, by parents they call Frank and Astrid. Astrid, in particular, is larger than life, and as Charlotte negotiates adolescence, her mother looms glamorously above it all. In Dreaming in French, Megan McAndrew lovingly captures the desperate seriousness of being a teenager, years when everything feels terribly important and much energy is spent proving it.

“I was just me, waiting for someone to find me intriguing,” Charlotte explains. A classic sort of heroine in a classic coming of age story, she is-of course!-smarter and more thoughtful than everyone around her (including her mother, whose charisma doesn’t go unpunished) and blissfully unable to find a place she fits. Initially awkward, she ripens into her beauty right on schedule. She holds fast to her little rebellions, discovers power in sex with appropriately older me—,”taking lovers,” in her insistent parlance—and descends into cynicism with relish, like she’s the first person to ever wear a Sex Pistols t-shirt to a civilized meal or question the institution of marriage. Mostly though, she’s obsessed with becoming a woman. Her efforts to be older than she is, and later, her conviction that she has transcended age, are sharply observed here, portrayed with a yearning and a put-on wisdom that feels more authentic for being a little grating.

Charlotte marches towards 30 and McAndrew keeps things moving briskly, making it difficult for any one event (whether personal tragedy or political turmoil) to stand out. Dreaming in French may be predictable, walking us through the milestones of precocious young adulthood as if working from a checklist—but part of Charlotte’s appeal lies in her familiarity. She’s an archetype, an outsider determined to stand at a distance from the happy endings scripted for everyone around her. McAndrew is clearly enamored by her protagonist, and in the end seems reluctant to let her go. Readers will have less trouble: Charlotte’s story is wonderfully diverting, but not as profound as she or her author would like.