06.10.11

La Seduction by Elaine Sciolino: Review by Mireille Guiliano

A new book by New York Times correspondent Elaine Sciolino tries to capture the French art of seduction, but Mireille Giuliano says she misses how the French really do it.

A good title, La Seduction. It evokes notions of assignations, boudoirs, black stilettos, and a fascination with the mythical art of “French seduction” that makes you want to read on. Much has been written about the French as seducers, and the latest guide is Elaine Sciolino’s La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, which deals with the subtle and cultural ways seduction shapes all aspects of French life. She takes a broad approach and writes less about the sexual associations of the word and more about the pleasure game the French play in order to “attract or influence, to win over, even if just for fun.”

Ms. Sciolino’s pedigree as a commentator on things French is first class. She was a student in France in 1969 and returned to live and work there as a correspondent for Newsweek, then later as the Bureau Chief of The New York Times in Paris, and now as a correspondent for the paper. She finds French life permeated with the seduction factor, and in a journalistic fashion looks at it in an array of fields, including politics, foreign affairs, literature, history, film, advertising, beauty, scent, fashion, entertaining, food and wine, and sex, and makes her mostly French victims unveil some rules and secrets.

Her long-standing status as a top American reporter in France, gives her the advantage of access to French Presidents (the most boring part as politicians are masters in hypocrisy), aristocrats, historians, philosophers (too many males in their seventies with references to a France of their past), and to attend fancy events in fancy places. Not your everyday French life or people, and not a completely objective and contemporary way of looking at seduction’s evolution.

Hers is a serious, professionally researched, and edited volume on what in many ways is a light-hearted topic. When making an assertion, she duly backs it up in sound journalistic practice with three pieces of supporting evidence, even when one will do as her points are often widely established and acknowledged all over France and beyond. She rarely takes the opportunity to have fun exploring nuances.

Nevertheless, I savored many of Ms. Sciolino’s comments as a French-born American woman. Someone dropped into a foreign culture often sees things clearly that natives often don’t grasp. But sometimes in social settings she just doesn’t get it, but recognizes that and confesses at the end of the book that she and her husband “will never think like the French, never shed our Americanness. Nor do we want to.”

Like a good Claude Lelouch film, I want goose bumps, which I didn’t experience quite enough while reading her book.

Ms. Sciolino’s book will certainly appeal to Francophiles who may be amused by the diversity of brief conversations that at times read like a long list of name dropping—with politicians, celebrities, business people with party lines mixed with her butcher or fishmonger to bring a bit more of life and humor or cynicism to her argument. Seduction is about regard (look), smile, words, gestures, but it is often more subtle and difficult to break the codes, conscious, and unconscious.

Sometimes one feels the French interviewee is actually putting Ms. Sciolino on rather than answering honestly or intelligently: When Giscard d’Estaing tells her “I have never met an American, never, who has really understood what drives French society,” isn’t he purposely exaggerating? Or Inès de la Fressange who says, “You can’t talk about seduction, fashion, politics, beauty without a French lover….for the final touch!” Really? Even more eye-opening and surreal is when Ms. Sciolino visits the BHL (Bernard Henri Levy) and Arielle Dombasle couple in their apartment where she is made to sit fifteen-minutes (I know the game) on velvet cushions in a formal living room “lined in silk damask.” An Indian manservant serves her a special mineral water. This is not typically French. And is she attempting to make fun of BHL or is the joke on her?

At such times I was perplexed by the author’s intentions. (From her remarks one wonders if she is naïve, gullible, or cynical? Or perhaps she is consciously making herself look the innocent abroad to heighten and illuminate cultural contrasts.) Some examples remind me why the French often come out as arrogant to foreigners. None of my Parisian friends would pay any attention to what her oh-so many grand people say. They are considered compatriots from another planet, and no one gives a hoot on their viewpoint, especially not in the France of 2011. Comments from French women in their thirties and forties could have added a more modern outlook to the kingdom of seduction in our melting pot.

By taking the risk to be inclusive, she is to be applauded for offering pretty much something for every palate. The chapter I most enjoyed was “The gastronomic orgasm,” touching on the associations of love and food—in homes, in restaurants, on the plate, on the morning news where they discuss “the aphrodisiac properties of arugula or experiments on the use of escargot mucus to make a facial moisturizer.” Indeed, food and wine in thought, talk, and practice play a seductive role in French life, at least among my many friends of all ages, types, and classes.

When I think of seduction wearing my French hat, I don’t want Cartesian logic, much analysis or reportage, rather I look for spontaneity, sensuality, fun, laughter, love, an art of living, and, yes, pleasure. But that is me and not Ms. Sciolino’s book. Like a good Claude Lelouch film, I want goose bumps, which I didn’t experience quite enough while reading her book.

Mireille Guiliano is the best-selling author of French Women Don’t Get Fat and three other books. She is a former chief executive at LVMH.