The Glass Castle author Jeannette Walls once told me that memoir should be universal, and I've kept that in mind ever since when I read them. What I think she meant is that while a memoir is specific to the storyteller in the details, anyone should be able to relate to it, somehow. As I read Lucy Knisley's French Milk, I was struck by her storytelling, but also her age, use of photography, and that I could never write such a book, though I too have traveled to Paris with my mother.
The fact that her divorced parents are on good terms, a fact she casually drops in, resonated with me, especially when her father comes to join them for a brief visit during their six-week trip. This would never happen in my divorced family, and it made me, briefly, jealous--again, this goes back to Walls's maxim; my life circumstances may not be the same as Knisley's, but hers caused me to reflect on my own. She also exhibits a particular pride and faith in her work (with the occasional doubts), one that I still struggle with in my early thirties. Her dedication to her art and the creation of this book are apparent. Other moments are brief but powerful, such as going up the Eiffel Tower on a particularly windy day, where Knisley writes, "You could feel the tower move in the wind and see the birds blown off course."
I was torn as to the value of the photographs she included; at first, I thought there was something unfair about it, but then I came upon one of her kissing a wall and realized there was no other way to capture that moment, at least, not so thoroughly. The photos are used sparingly, without comment, filling in gaps in her story, fleshing them out and creating what feels more like an intimate scrapbook than a memoir, albeit an accessible one.
French Milk is a travelogue, and as such, sometimes the details of each meal become less interesting toward the end. But it's Knisley's personality, and little details that make this book so charming, whether it's the odd characters she meets or her feeling low on a particular day or railing against a piece of bad art, going so far as to name the artist, who's made a rendition of Paris Hilton, by name.
I finished the book a bit jealous of Knisley's closeness with her mother, and impressed that she managed to finesse both the details and the bigger picture, a portrait of a young woman just starting out in "the real world," but taking a detour to a city full of pastries, lush dinners, cemeteries, art and adventure before she does so. French Milk will appeal to Americans who've, like Knisley, fallen for Paris, and those looking to recapture their college traveling days. As for me, I'm giving a copy to my mom, and hope that our travels are as fruitful.