Marianne is stuck in a loveless, unhappy marriage. After forty-one years she’s reached her limit, and one evening in Paris she decides to take action. Following a dramatic moment on the banks of the Seine, Marianne leaves her former life behind, setting out for the picturesque coast of Brittany, a place known in France as “the end of the world.”
Once there, she meets a colorful cast of unforgettable locals, people who surprise her with a warm welcome and the natural ease they all seem to possess, taking pleasure in life’s small moments. As the parts of herself she’s long forgotten begin to return in this new and expansive world, Marianne realizes it’s not too late to begin the search for what life should have been all along.
With every bit of the buoyant charm that made The Little Paris Bookshop a beloved bestseller, The Little French Bistro is an immersive tale of second chances and a delightful embrace of the joys in life.
Nina spoke with Read It Forward editor Abbe Wright on the adventurous spirit you need to embrace in order to take bold risks, her passion for writing about love and friendship in characters of all ages, and how books serve as a profound piece of the human soul to connect us all.
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Read It Forward: The Little French Bistro is all about starting over, and everyone needs a second chance in life. What is so important about the ability to have a second chance?
Nina George: Taking a second chance is the most difficult thing you could ever do, because normally we are all stuck in our attitudes. We build up our lives like a little cage; we have relationships, we buy houses, we have kids, and so on. And one day we ask ourselves, “Did I really become the woman or the man that I should have become?”
The older you get, the harder it is to break out of the cage and take risks, to be brave, to do the first steps. I think the first steps are the most difficult. I wanted to develop what might happen to someone who stepped out of their life. I think it’s a certain angle of fear, of braveness, and of impulse. In every human, there is the impulse to break out—to just step out of their lives, walk out of the door and leave everything behind. And I wanted to know, why?
RIF: In both of your books, the setting in France is very nearly a character itself. Where did you grow up, and why is it important for you to set your books in France?
NG: I grew up in the middle of Germany. I was born in a little city named Bielefeld. The German people know all the German jokes, and there was a myth around Bielefeld that says Bielefeld does not exist. But it does exist—it’s in the middle of Germany with all these conventions, all these religious things where young women are told not to be too complicated, not to be too interested in a career if they’re also interested in getting a man, and so on.
When you stay there, you stay small in your mind. You have to break out. So I was falling in love with France when I was a young girl. I saw all the wonderful photos and all the books, and I started to read Marguerite Duras, Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Anaïs Nin, all these French authors. And it was like, “Oh, there is the real world. I have to visit France.”
And the character—it’s wonderful that you’ve asked, because the landscape is a hidden character in that it’s a mirror for all the personalities. It opens up the senses. Sometimes I do a little trick, a little writing trick. I’m a classical writer who wants to show, not tell. And to show the inner reflections by just saying, “Oh, he was so sad.” Well, that’s not very good. But if he goes through a landscape, and the landscape is the mirror of his inner feelings, that’s one easy trick to show how somebody is feeling.
The landscape of Little French Bistro is Little Brittany, the end of the world, they say. For the people who live in Little Brittany, it’s the beginning of the world because it’s one of the oldest parts of Europe, the oldest stones, and it’s these parts that grow up out of the sea and build up lands. The people from Little Brittany, they’re a little more distant to France; their roots are Celtic and Gaelic. They feel familiar with the people from Ireland, from Scotland. On the opposite side is the South of France, with all the lights, the colors, the intense hotness of the summer. So you have to go there if you want to find yourself.
RIF: Oh, I love that. Both of your books have main characters who are over 50. Was this a conscious choice that you made, and why?
NG: I think people who have lived a little bit longer than others—I don’t want to talk about age because age is just a number. I’m now 44. Is it old? No. Is it young? No. It’s just a number. But these people are more interesting to me, because they had to grow in principles over their lives, they had built up cages and build up their inner feelings. To break them up seemed more interesting than a story of a thirty-something. To be thirty-something is wonderful, but you’re still at the start of your life. You have not made so many mistakes.
But people at 50 or 60, they have made their decisions, and they have not so much time to make a correction. If you want to write an interesting story, you have to put pressure on your characters. So they have time pressure because they’re a little bit older than others. There’s also the pressure of space. When the world is coming too near, they have to break out. And the third pressure, I totally forget!
RIF: Other people can sometimes provide pressure.
NG: Yeah. And if they have no money, and they’re going on a road trip or a quest but lost all their money, they have to develop skills and socialize with other people they avoided before. They don’t want to be too close, too intimate, because both of them are thinking, “If I get too close, I could be hurt.” That’s the problem of everybody, but yes, we will get hurt for sure, and we will hurt other people. That’s normal. That’s life. But they have to learn it.
RIF: So you depict this love between characters who are older, have a few more years under their belts, and we don’t get to see that a lot. I love that life does not end at 35, and there’s still a possibility for love and friendship, even as you grow older. Do you think it’s difficult sometimes to believe that one can find longing and hope in a relationship at a more advanced age?
NG: I think we are living in a time when all these aesthetic questions are more interesting for people than the inner questions. When it comes to aged people, everybody—well, not everybody—but there’s a common sense that elder people are not aesthetically pleasing anymore; how could they make love? I wanted to show that love and passion is nothing about how you look, it’s how you feel.
When I first wrote this book, my publisher was also wondering, “Wow, you’re choosing a 60-year-old woman for a heroine? And all the other people are between 60 and 80 years old? Hmm, well…we will see.” I tried to figure out what kind of love you have in the autumn of your life, and there’s a lot of troubled love. There’s a couple that’s been married for 50 years in this book, and they’re betraying and cheating on each other, but the love is still there. And now they’re getting older together, and there’s a scene where Emile is watching his wife, and he thinks, “I know every variation of her face. I know every variation of the woman she has been, and I’m so glad I was her companion during life.”
You have to take risks to go back to this first love. A young boy, the cook, who is not able to speak out about his love for the young waitress. The love Marianne finds is a kind of self-loving. This book is about different variations of loving, and sometimes it’s just an hour when people love each other. But love has no age, and it’s kind of a dictatorial thing; it comes and goes, and we can’t do anything against it.
RIF: Mm-hmm. You also write a lot about friendship, which is another kind of love.
NG: Oh yes, friendship. I think friendship is the more patient love, maybe. You have to choose your friends wisely, and when you’re at the end of your life, at the very last day, and you look back, it’s the people you have been living with who are the center of your life. It’s not your career; it’s not the money; it’s not how you look or have you been thin or not thin or something like that. It’s the moments with friends. Friendship is one of the most worthy—and not easy to find—things in the world.
RIF: The Little Paris Bookshop, your first book, is all about the power of stories to heal us. What is it about literature and storytelling that has the power to heal?
NG: When I was a little girl, I was initiated by the legends and myths of the Romans and Greeks, and I started to read existential stories about gods and love and hate and secrets and lies and betrayal. There was everything, and it made me feel like I wanted to be a heroine—I wanted to grab the world like Diana, the goddess of war and of hunting. That was my first contact with the effect of stories.
I think books show us different variations of living. They teach us there is other love, other hate, other religion, other decisions that could be made. It makes society more tolerant when there are many writers to show how many variations of living and being exist. And deep within us, we are all a story, too. You are a story; I am a story. We are books that are now written, and we need to be the main characters in our own lives, as well as the writer. Every one of us knows how this book will end. Everyone knows. But through the pages, we can write our own story. Books are as similar as humans, and I think they are friends to humans. If you read books, you will never be alone. Books are made from man for man, but they are also representing the human soul. It’s just us.
RIF: I love that: “You need to be the main character in your own story, as well as the writer.” So have you used books to heal any sort of ailments?
NG: Sure. When my heart was broken, I used to read mystery and horror and crime novels where the blood was spurting out. I didn’t want to read any romance stuff, not even joke books, because it was like, “I’m so sad, and this is not very funny.”
RIF: Someone needs to die.
NG: Yes, someone needs to die, and the blood everywhere and the bones and the flesh. Yeah, that really heals me. But I was also reading when I was very stressed, because I had been a workaholic. When I feel stressed, I read cookbooks and enjoy all the recipes and the wonderful photos. In that situation, my head starts to relax. And all this time, they found out, just seven minutes of reading per day lowers your blood pressure.
RIF: So what are you reading right now?
NG: I started re-reading Anna Seghers’s Transit. It’s based in Marseilles during World War II where all these refugees are waiting to go to America. I think this novel Transit is a kind of mirror from yesterday, but for the situation today with our refugee situation in Europe.
I started to read a French book from Laetitia Colombani, La Tresse. It talks about three women in India, Canada, and Italy, wonderful portraits of three different women. I love Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night. I’ve read Sweetbitter from Stephanie Danler. I read a lot, but sometimes I forget them!
RIF: Do you read in French, German, or English? Or all three?
NG: Normally I read in German, but sometimes also in English. Now I’m starting with the French books, but it’s—well, it took me a time to speak, not good French, but it’s okay for conversation. And now I’m searching for books which I understand.
RIF: Exactly. So what do you hope readers take away from The Little French Bistro?
NG: I hope they feel relaxed at the end. I hope they feel encouraged. I hope they’re more interested in cooking really good stuff. I hope they’re interested in learning Tango Argentino. And I hope especially that the women are able to throw away the inner cages they built up because of education or society. Society and sometimes education from their mothers that says, “Don’t be too complicated; don’t want too much. Don’t be so strong and so big, because that’s not simpatico. What will the others think about you?”
In Europe, education often holds women small. Not in France, I have to admit. They are much more emancipated; I really appreciate it. But in the Western world, most of the education tries to hold women down and tell them, “Be beautiful, you have to find a man,” and so on. It’s not outspoken so directly, but it’s the subtitle of every education.
So I hope at the end of The Little Breton Bistro or Little French Bistro, the woman must ask herself, “Do I fear being strong? Why do I fear that I could be strong? I shouldn’t fear being strong, because I am. Yes, I am fascinating. I am a special one, and I should stop fearing that somebody could not love me, because I’m fabulous.” So, you’re fabulous. You are.
RIF: Do you have a favorite scene in the book that you loved writing or love re-reading?
NG: I re-read it recently because of the preparation for this little book tour, and there’s a lovely scene where my chef is giving a little sweetie tour, and the cat is positioning herself with her back in the sun while eating this little sweetie. And I thought this is so nice, the imagination of a cat trying to feel comfortable. It’s quite little, just a two- or three-word sentence, but I like that.
I like the misunderstanding between Marianne and Yann when they first meet and they’re falling very softly, day after day, in love. His first invitation is to a funeral, and because she does not understand any French, she says, “Oh yes, I would love to.” And they’re at this funeral, and Yann thinks, “Oh my god, what have I done?” They have a wonderful time, and it’s so touching, this funeral for this man who has died. They put him on a ship, and the ship rolls out in the wide Atlantic. There’s a choir singing; there’s a lot of alcohol and eating and wonderful Breton lifestyle. It’s very touching, to create a scene for their first rendezvous. It was weird, but touching!
Author Photo: Maurice Kohl/Nina George