Elaine Sciolino has a bee in her bonnet.
Not literally, of course. But she’s struggling all the same, you can tell. What is it about those French? The hot eye from the guys in the street, the sixty-something women whose lacy bras show through their blouses? The perpetual sense of sexual possibility, but even more than that, the priority that French culture places on pleasure? Can an American ever understand the impulse that produced, say, the castle of Chenonceaux, the chocolate éclair, and the cinq à sept? (Translation: “five to seven,” or the hours during which a ritual infidenity may occur.) Sciolino, Paris correspondent for The New York Times, set out to research the question and La Seductionis her answer.
I have to tell you right now that she does not produce a playbook. Nothing you can say or do will turn you into Maurice Chevalier or Brigitte Bardot, OK? In fact La Seduction is much better at description than at prescription. When Sciolino looks at the fate of France on the world stage, or the plight of the countryside, trying to show how the French impulse to seduce gets the country into trouble in the modern world, the focus wobbles. And when the author takes us on field trips to investigate the role of perfume, the enterprise feels like an extended feature for the travel section of your favorite newspaper. There are also personal-memoir segments that drag, even for a Francophile full of envy at Sciolino’s opportunities. (Notably, the dinner-party sequence at the end, which was certainly more fun to experience than to read about.)
But anyone who’s enjoyed time in France is aware of the phenomenon that so fascinates Sciolino, and it’s very enjoyable to read her terrier-like consideration of the process of seduction as it pervades everyday French life, especially her analysis of the sexual undercurrent in French life which is so very different from life in the U.S. (Note: the book has gotten some publicity from the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, and Sciolino mentions DSK in several places as a legendary womanizer.)
In a way the book itself is another phenomenon familiar to the French — a mildly controversial proposition that can serve as a kind of mental plaything, entertaining and stimulating. Apparently we will never fully understand the role seduction plays in French life, nor will we be able to replicate it (nor, perhaps would we want to). But there are plenty of readers like me who are more than happy to spend a few hours mulling over the question.