Paul West is sent to work in France for a one year assignment, helping develop a series of British tea rooms & cafes throughout Paris. Along the way, he encounters more than he expecting. He finds himself dealing an apathetic group at work, an untrustworthy boss, a sea of flirtatious yet unavailable women, piles of literal and figurative merde in general throughout the city and its residents.
Although fictional, this book could quite possible pass as an actual memoir. Paul is a wonderful narrator, taking us through his frustrations, his accomplishments and failures as he tries to get through a year in Paris. This is also one of the funniest books I’ve read regarding the subject of a foreigner trying to become a local.
I thought all of the characters were well-developed and well-balanced. From the cranky administrative staff, to the negligent severs at cafes, almost everything described in this book matched every memoir I’ve read set in France. As a bachelor, much of the book is focused on Paul’s sexual exploits (of which there are a many). The rest of the book is focused on Paul’s experiences at work dealing with a staff that could care less about the project.
Although he’s witty, Paul isn’t really a likable character, no one is actually. He’s very self-centered at times and his primary goal seems to be getting laid. His sense of humor, though, is hilarious and his exploits (sexual and the mundane) are equally entertaining as his bumbling nature keeps getting the better of him. Granted, as a fictional account, much of this book did have some exaggerated elements purely for the sake of humor. A lot of the humor and characters reminded me of Peter Mayle’s experiences in A Year in Provance. A Year in the Merde is meant to be a ribald and sarcastic take on French culture (the food, the constant strikes & protests, the relaxed work habits, etc.) and one British man’s continual attempts to get through one year of paid employment.