“Freshly arrived from a beautiful Tunisian island to work for the exacting Countess Poulais du Roc, Fatima finds herself in a city where even the most mundane tasks like walking the dog and buying the groceries prove baffling. But her natural compassion ensures her survival, and-unexpectedly-brings good fortune to those around her.”
Fatima’s younger sister, Rachida, moved from the Tunisian island of Djerba to Paris to make a better life for herself. She was working as a maid for the Countess when she was killed in an accident. The Countess remembers that Rachida had a sister and imperiously sends for her to take her sister’s place. She considers this a mission of charity but doesn’t think about the impact on Fatima’s life. That is the major character flaw of the Countess. She is so self-centered that she doesn’t think about the needs of anyone other than herself and her dog, Emma. She moves through other people’s lives like a battering ram oblivious to the damage that she is causing. She takes credit for good deeds that others have done and never gets called out on her casual racism.
She is shocked to find out that Fatima is nothing like her sister. Fatima went to work in a resort as a cleaner as a child. This income allowed Rachida to go to school. Fatima is illiterate. She is not as worldly as Rachida. Life in France is overwhelming to her.
Fatima enlists the help of others in her building to help her learn the skills that she needs to survive in France. She has a warmth that draws others to her and makes them want to help her. The reader sees this slice of Paris through the eyes of a North African immigrant who isn’t always welcomed.
The ending is mostly an immigrant fairy tale. Everything works out wonderfully and not that realistically. This book tries to make a light and fun tale out of some serious subjects – immigration, class inequality, the death of a family member – so even as you root for the characters it feels jarring like no one is taking this as seriously as is merited.
I have really mixed feelings about this one. While reading it, I wanted to know what was going to happen in the story but wasn’t sure about the tone. Was the racist and classist representation of the Countess meant to point out the bad behavior of French people? With everyone around her not commenting on it I wasn’t sure if it was that or if the book was somehow trying to condone it – “Oh, that’s just how rich old ladies are.” All the Africans are wonderful, amazing people who improve the lives of everyone they interact with. There is no nuance. It made me thing of the magical negro trope.
Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson went on a trip around Britain to celebrate the green and kindly island that had become his adopted country. The hilarious book that resulted, Notes from a Small Island, was taken to the nation’s heart and became the bestselling travel book ever, and was also voted in a BBC poll the book that best represents Britain.Now, to mark the twentieth anniversary of that modern classic, Bryson makes a brand-new journey round Britain to see what has changed.
Following (but not too closely) a route he dubs the Bryson Line, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, by way of places that many people never get to at all, Bryson sets out to rediscover the wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric, endearingly unique country that he thought he knew but doesn’t altogether recognize any more.
Bill Bryson is really grumpy in this book. I’m a big Bryson fan. I think I’ve read everything he’s written. He’s never veered far from curmudgeonly but he’s downright peevish in this book. He’s telling people to fuck off repeatedly. Fair warning if that kind of thing bothers you.
To start this journey he drew a line on a map connecting the farthest points he could find on a map of the United Kingdom.
He started his trip from Bognor Regis in the south and meandered his way north in the general direction of this line. This made me spend some quality time with Google maps. I thought I had in my head a general idea of where he was going. Then suddenly he was in Wales. I didn’t know which one of us was not understanding geography. I did find that I didn’t have a very good grasp on English geography – although I was spot on about Wales. I would have sworn the Lake District was northeast of London along with Stratford-upon- Avon and the Cotswolds. Turns out none of these things are true.
He alternates taking lovely walks with complaining about British customer service and the tendency of British people to litter. He does have a strange nostalgia for museums full of taxidermy which I personally hate. He can’t stand shops selling pieces of wood with pithy sayings on them. He seems to get a bit tipsy more than is probably healthy or wise.
There was more in this book about his life outside of writing than there has been in other books. He talks about doing speeches to politicians and filming TV shows.
I was disappointed that he didn’t narrate the audiobook. That’s one of the joys of listening to his books on audio. The narrator did a good job but it took me several hours to get over the fact that he wasn’t Bill Bryson and to stop hearing a phantom version of Bill Bryson’s voice in my head reading along with the narrator.
Bottom line – Listen to this one if you are a fan but don’t let this be a first or third Bryson book.