- - Friday, September 16, 2011

THE HOUSE IN FRANCE: A MEMOIR
By Gully Wells
Knopf, $25.95, 320 pages, illustrated

If you have not yet had your fill of books recounting the joys of having a house in Provence, you will love this one. For it’s all there again, beautifully and evocatively described: the markets overflowing with fragrant herbs and purple figs bursting their skins, the beaches with snack bars full of delicious treats, the magical light of the Midi, which attracted so many artists and delighted all manner of visitors.

What makes this memoir special is the people in and around that house in France that Gully Wells‘ mother picked up for a song in the early 1960s when the author was not yet a teenager. Her American parents, diplomat father and novelist turned British television personality mother Dee Wells, divorced when Gully was still a small child. But far from bewailing her broken family, she realizes that this launched her into extraordinary company, particularly when British philosopher superstar A.J. “Freddie” Ayer married her mother:

“Life with my mother and Freddie was never boring. They both shared the same sense of humor and the fundamental idea that although life was clearly a serious business, there was no reason why it should not be FUN. … Like all children, I accepted my own family and circumstances as being utterly normal. And it was only as I got older that I came to realize that not everybody commuted between Europe and America, got divorced, had multiple lovers, the odd illegitimate child, and, most surprising of all, that the world was actually full of people who were neither clever nor funny. The last realization was the real shocker and much the hardest to adjust to.”

As the years unfold, there is a seemingly endless cast of characters, many of them well-known, all amusingly and sharply presented by Ms. Wells, whose upbringing must serve her well in her present position as features editor at Conde Nast Traveler magazine. At times, you might need a scorecard as to who is sleeping with whom, and the consequences of all these goings on, now and in the past, can be amazing.

The fact that one of Ayer’s sons by his previous marriage was not his biological child was so well-known that the boy’s housemaster at Eton actually has to write a letter imploring that he be told the truth by his parents since it was inevitable he was going to learn it from someone else. Ms. Wells knows how to tell such stories with just the right mixture of insouciance and wonder.

Although the portrait of Dee Wells is generally an affectionate one, her daughter’s fondness does not blind her to reality. Perhaps the kindest description of the lady would be to hail her as a force of nature, although readers might well call her by less flattering appellations.

Bright, honest and amusing she certainly was, but she could cause havoc as she went her merry, willful way, “wicked, glamorous, funny, opinionated, unpredictable, and ferociously rude.” As her daughter remembers Dee concentrating her charms on a neighbor’s son to the exclusion of her own (she had given Ayer a child who was actually his), she is clear-eyed: “How about the other boy who watched while his mother amused herself, with his friend? What was she doing? And why? Forty years have gone by and I still have no answer.”

And she doesn’t only watch the effects of this on others. Never prissy about matters sexual in word or deed, Dee neglected to enlighten Gully about menstruation, with predictably humiliating results:

“Why would you let that happen to your daughter? It must have had something to do with her own mother’s neglect, and the way she had learned early on to look out for herself, because nobody else was going to do it for you. She had gone to the drugstore alone, at twelve, to buy a box of Kotex, so why shouldn’t I?”

But this book is not just about Freddie and Dee, who will divorce and eventually reconcile, but not before he has married again and becomes stepfather to the future food goddess Nigella Lawson. Gully goes to Oxford as a student in the go-go 1970s, where she comes into her own, putting all that observation of high-flying to good use. And so we get more delicious gossip, this time about a younger crowd, including Martin Amis, again delivered with grace and panache. Reading this memoir takes you all manner of places, not merely the eponymous house.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.


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