It is 1960 in the memoir, A Gift From Brittany, when Marjorie leaves her parents and boyfriend in order to fulfill her lifelong dream of going to Paris to paint for what she thinks will be a few months. As an artist, she cannot be complete without that experience, and even though she doesn’t speak the language nor do American women time travel alone and unaccompanied at the time, she saves every penny so that she may experience what it is like to be an artist in Paris. Not too long after she arrives and fumbles with the language for a bit, she meets the dark, handsome and passionate artist, Yves Drumont, and quickly falls into his world and routines. Marjorie decides that she will not to return home, and that she will marry Yves. When Yves decides that they will buy half a hamlet consisting of broken down farmhouses, Marjorie consents with barely a peep and starts on a journey which will have a profound effect on her life.
I was immediately able to get into the story of such a fascinating artist, and let me say that my emotions were fully engaged. This memoir provoked a lot of questions with me about how people make choices, and how many of our choices are influenced by the manners of the era or a particular stage of our lives. I was fortunate enough to interview Marjorie Price about how she felt about her life experiences, and whether she would have made different choices if she had been making them under the influences of a different era with different thinking. Price’s life was arresting to contemplate because on the one hand she defied her parents and fiancee, bravely going off to France alone when women were staying at home and getting married, but then other hand she let her husband make major decisions – decisions that were troubling and detrimental to her as a person and an artist- and she barely made a peep. I wondered if it was because she was so in love with the idea of having found the “one” for her and/or if being a married to such a dynamic artist was the determining influence that made her give up her voice so easily.
The centerpiece of Price’s book is the picturesque Breton countryside and her relationship with Jeanne Montrelay, a peasant woman who has lived without traveling more than the few miles to church her entire life. I loved watching their warm relationship unfold as Price introduces us to the simple customs of life and farming that have gone untouched for centuries. Living in the hamlet, people form strong bonds because in a community where everyone has to help each other, that is the only way to ensure their survival. Price has Jeanne and the relationships that she is developing with the other in the village while she and her daughter, Danielle, endure turbulent times with Yves, who has become increasingly volatile. The hamlet and farmhouse purchases which had seemed so direly wrong in the beginning teach and shelter Price as she becomes a woman who can stand on her own.
Price’s writing is simple yet revealing and her descriptions of the hamlet and her environment paint a charming picture, but sometimes I felt that it was a bit hard to get at the emotion behind her words. Parts of her story are a little choppy and sudden, and I think that is because she reaches some difficult points where the reader would have understood more fully had she gone deeper. Those might have have been places which were still too painful for her to explore, or more detailed than where she wanted to go with this work. There was an emotional depth that was missing for me in some places.
Overall this was a wonderful glimpse into the lives of not only a strong and lively community of villagers, but of deep friendship, the lives and struggles of artists, and how one artist in particular has to find a way to claim her voice. If you are looking for a warm tale of friendship, and have any curiosity about artists in France and what life used to be like in the French countryside, you’ll find many things of interest and food for thought in this richly recounted memoir.