Finding herself single and adrift in her thirties, Karen Wheeler is ready for a change. After some recon abroad, she throws away a lucrative career as a fashion editor to move into a dilapidated home in France. It’s there that she meets a colorful array of characters, attempts to find footing with her writing career — and just might get another shot at romance.
Karen Wheeler’s Tout Sweet: Hanging Up My High Heels for a New Life in France is candid memoir detailing the difficulties, excitement and intrigue of uprooting one’s life in the quintessential search for something more. Karen is like many heroines — especially Frances Mayes, author of Under The Tuscan Sun. As the film is one of my all-time favorites, I couldn’t help but compare Wheeler’s story to Mayes’. And though this tale brings us to France instead of Italy, the root is the same: single woman craving adventure buys an old home in a beautiful, rural country and must restore the property . . . and her own heart.
So what I’m saying? I’ve heard this one before. I don’t mean to seem callous and I appreciated Wheeler’s unique set of circumstances, but I struggled to find anything truly unique in Tout Sweet. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve been nose-first in countless books taking place in and around France lately, but I felt like . . . I don’t know. Like I wanted something exhilarating to happen, and it really didn’t. Wheeler’s writing is strong and her descriptions solid, but I guess I just felt a little bored by the whole thing. The pacing was slow and didn’t invite anything unexpected.
I struggled to really feel for Wheeler, too; even as the author was describing past heartbreak, especially in a poignant scene in La Rochelle, I never felt a tiny twinge of empathy for her. The text seemed strangely devoid of emotion. I don’t need to read about the narrator throwing herself at the feet of an ex-lover, exactly, but I wanted to know more about how she was truly coping with the loss of her love. Though that seemed to be the impetus for her flight from London, it’s sort of . . . glossed over. Ignored. Swept aside.
Maybe she didn’t want to dwell or make this a dull catalog of heartache. I can appreciate that. But the result was a story that didn’t stir my emotions at all.
But what I did like? Wheeler’s descriptions of the people of Poitou-Charentes, France, her adopted home. And I liked Wheeler’s candor when projects didn’t go her way — like the time she believed her French good enough to communicate with a contractor (or “artisan” — isn’t that fancy?), only to return to a painfully white paint job in her new home. (Not the look she was going for.) Unlike books that seem to feature heroines who flit in and out of life with nary a trouble, Wheeler certainly faced her share of obstacles — but didn’t let them defeat her. I admired her tenacious spirit and willingness to make such a big, bold change.
As a book, though, her story didn’t translate to a page-turner for me. I found myself setting it aside for days at a time, returning only occasionally to read a few pages — an unusual experience for me. If I’m not tearing through a book, desperate for more, then I typically take that as a sign that a story and I aren’t clicking. Though I liked Wheeler’s sharp British wit and enjoyed experiencing life in France from an Englishwoman’s view, it wasn’t enough to really compel me onward. Probably best for Francophiles and serious travel memoir buffs.
3 out of 5!