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Merde Happens - Stephen Clarke

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Author: Stephen Clarke / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 24 March 2008 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd / Title: Merde Happens / ISBN 13: 9780552773515 / ISBN 10: 0552773515 / Alternative EAN: 9780593056318

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      03.10.2008 15:27
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      close but doesn't quite hit the mark

      Stephen Clarke tells us the hilarious tales of Paul West, a Brit abroad, living and working in France, which is exactly the same as me, so his writing immediately appeals to me. I can really relate to the predicaments he finds himself in when faced with painfully inept French officials, the linguistic mishaps and the general inter-cultural misunderstandings that constantly crop up when you immerse yourself in a foreign country.

      The two previous books ("Merde Actually" and "A year in the Merde") have dealt with exactly that, the tales of Paul's life in France, whereas for this latest offering, he changes continents and adds another nationality to the mix.

      The basic ingredients are the same - we have Paul West the Englishman and his très French girlfriend Alexa as usual - but this time, they are thrown together with an American Jake and travel across the USA. As with all good recipes, you have to be careful or you add one extra ingredient too many and the finished result just doesn't live up to the original basic model. And although I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, I couldn't help thinking it wasn't quite as good as the two previous episodes.

      The basic story is that Paul West, on behalf of the British Tourist Agency, accepts to travel across the US continent, calling in at a number of towns on route (Boston, New York, Washington DC, Miami, New Orleans, Las Vegas) and hosting British-themed events. Squashed into a tiny Mini (with a Union Jack on the roof !), tempers soon fray with his French girlfriend and (as usual) things don't go as smoothly as planned - often with hilarious consequences.

      The Times quote on the book sums it up really - "Edgier than Bryson, hits harder than Mayle" - but that is one of the problems. It seems to be part travel-writing, presumably based partly on fact, but also with a huge dollop of fiction and it is sometimes hard to know where to draw the line, which is a shame.

      There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, as with the previous books, but this time a lot of the humour comes from Jake, an American who has lived in France for so long he now speaks only fluent franglais which Paul has to translate. It was pure genius for me, because once you've lived in a foreign country for a number of years, you really do start to speak like that (at least when you know the person in front of you understands both languages) but I did sometimes wonder how funny it would be to someone who didn't understand French and wouldn't understand a lot of the jokes without them being explained each time, which becomes tiresome.

      I felt that there were a few too many stereotypes this time too and most of the Americans are too one-dimensional to be really believable. In describing the ups and downs in France, the author managed to be harsh but witty, whereas this time, he seemed overly simplistic and patronising at times.

      It's still a good read but I recommend you start with one of the two previous books.

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