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Marilyn Yalom Explores the Roots of Romance

Her new book examines how the French became synonymous with amour.

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One of my favorite movie quotes comes from Cameron Crowe's Singles, a 1992 flick about young people falling in love amidst the backdrop of the Seattle grunge scene. "I live my life like a French movie," proclaims sidekick David Bailey. In the director's cut, a boy-meets-French-girl fantasy sequence shows us exactly what that means. But you don't really need the visual: Most of us know the French are synonymous with love and everything affiliated: gallantry, courting, passion — in other words, a love life any ordinary American can admire.

But how did the French get this way, and what is the actual history of love? Marilyn Yalom attempts to answer these questions in her new book, How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance. Painstakingly researched and delivered with tasteful aplomb, the book examines l'amour à la française through the centuries: famous couples like Abélard and Héloïse, writers on the subject like Collette and Oscar Wilde, the phenomenon of "May-December Romance," the birth of the femme fatale — no bed is left unmade in this deliciously exhaustive book, from which Yalom will read on Thursday, November 8, at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley).

Yalom's credentials for this subject are impressive: She began reading French love poems, novels, and plays when she was a teenager; later, she became a professor of French at Stanford University, and is now a scholar at The Clayman Institute for Gender Research. She also spends a considerable amount of time in France. Each chapter in her book dissects love in France through how it was depicted in words — first by troubadours, poets, novelists, and thinkers. It all started with courtly or romantic love, which was initially restricted to nobility or those literate few in the lower-classes. The spread of courtly romance caused a paradigm shift in the way people thought of love: feminizing it, shaping the rules for courtship, and creating the notion that there must be an obstacle to be overcome before love is realized. "For the first time in Western history — and in world history, for that matter — the power in love relations was transferred from men to women," Yalom said. "The male lover was expected to serve his lady, with all the niceties that Western women still hope for today." Adultery was commonplace — a sign of good health and passion amongst the French, not a reason to call the divorce lawyers. Americans, Yalom noted, come from an entirely different tradition, and don't have nine hundred years of history shaping our society. "The French have promoted sensual pleasure in love for a very long time, and also expect lovers to be able to articulate desire," she said. "These are social behaviors that have to be learned, and do not fit in easily with an American down-to-earth, individualistic, and masculinist culture."

Clearly, we have lots to learn. Like useful terminology such as "un cinq a sept" (a five to seven) — the French phrase for setting the time for a tryst. Or the effervescent "amour-passion," a special kind of love that one can only hope to experience. As for Yalom, she longs for the historical ideal of love. "We live at a time — both in the US and France — when sex per se seems to be overshadowing the tender aspects of love," she said. "Where this will take us is anyone's guess."

In the meantime, buy a bottle of wine and the correspondingly quoted French novel, and then fall head over heels. 7:30 p.m., free. 510-704-8222 or MrsDalloways.com

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