Bonjour, mes amis! I’m so delighted to welcome Julianna Baggott — who also writes under the pen name Bridget Asher — to talk about her new novel, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted. Isn’t the title evocative? The book is about a new widow, her young son, and a sullen teenage niece who find solace and new possibilities in a crumbling family home in Provence. I chatted with Julianna about food in fiction, Francophilia, and writing books that demands arduous research.
As a Francophile and expat, I’m especially looking forward to reading your book! What inspired you to create this story?
I wanted to write a novel about a house that had a certain hold over a family, one filled with lore. I wanted to have all of generations’ love stories impact the present. “Grief is a love story told backwards,” is the opening line and the final line in that first section is “Every good love story has another love hiding within it.” Both of those seemed very true to me as a started to delve into these lives. I’m also a Francophile — so why not set something in the South of France? Why not write a book that demands delicious research? Why not drink wine with a great excuse?
I love Provence and have spent many happy summer vacations there. Did you spend much time in Provence researching this book? Where did you stay?
All the nuns in my school spoke French — their secret language. Every nun from this particular order spent a novitiate year in Paris. How to devote a life to God after a year in Paris? I suppose it’s a divine test! One I would have failed. But I was motivated to learn the secret language. At thirteen, I went there on a trip with my parents and fell for Paris hard. I co-majored in French, did a study abroad year, fell in love with a Frenchman, fell out of love with a Frenchman — as it sometimes goes.
My husband and I decided to go back with the kids — our four (13, 11, 8 and 1 at the time) and an 11 year old niece. We rented a little house in the tiny village of Puyloubier. The actual house in the novel is an invention but it sits right next to a bed and breakfast where my parents stayed — la Bastide Richeaume. Many of the grounding events in the second half of the novel happened to us during our month in the south of France — including tending to an injured swallow, eating amazing food, and getting robbed.
I always love seeing France portrayed from an American perspective. Why do you think Americans have had such a long love affair with France (and vice versa)?
We don’t allow ourselves, culturally, to be romantic. Maybe it’s the cowboy in us. But the French not only allow it, they demand it. This is life — full and rich and devastating and beautiful and twisted. For some of us, that feels like a great relief.
How does food in fiction inspire you?
I’m a terrible cook. I truly am. And day in and day out, I’m a rustic eater who looks for fuel. But when I eat — really eat — I have a French pallet. I like small exquisite portions. I believe — deeply and resolutely — in cheese and chocolate. And I believe that food is art and love and story and that it can restore not only the body but the heart and soul. When I miss my grandmother deeply, I miss being at her table — amid all of that love. Food is a story.
Reading the book’s blurbs and early reviews, it sounds like food plays a big role in the story. What are your top five favorite things to eat in Provence?
I write about a few excellent meals that I had while there and they’re pivotal to the emotional growth of the character. So I’m going to point you to the book where there are more than five recipes. An entire Provencal meal from a French chef; a Provencal chicken in cream sauce recipe that’s been handed down for generations; and since the main character, Heidi, is a pastry chef, we also include recipes from a pastry chef who lives in my town. Bon appétit!