A companion volume to The Piano Shop on the Left Bank
For a young American boy in the 1950s, Fontainebleau was a sight both strange and majestic, home to a continual series of adventures: a different language to learn, weekend visits to nearby Paris, family road trips to Spain and Italy. Then there was the Château itself: a sprawling palace once the residence of kings, its grounds the perfect place to play hide-and-seek. Thirty years later Carhart returned to France with his wife to raise their two children. Visiting Fontainebleau again as an adult, he began to appreciate its influence on French style, taste, art, and architecture. Each trip to Fontainebleau introduces him to entirely new aspects of the Château’s history, enriching his memories and leading him to Patrick Ponsot, the head of the Château’s restoration, who becomes Carhart’s guide to the hidden Fontainebleau.
A beguiling memoir of a childhood in 1950s Fontainebleau from the much-admired New York Times bestselling author
“The Staircase of Farewells”
“Carhart writes with a sensuousness enhanced by patience and grounded by the humble acquisition of new insight into music, his childhood, and his relationship to the city of Paris.”—The New Yorker
the French way of life
What emerges is an intimate chronicle of a time and place few have experienced. In warm, precise prose, Carhart reconstructs the wonders of his childhood as an American in postwar France, attending French schools with his brothers and sisters. His firsthand account brings to life nothing less than France in the 1950s, from the parks and museums of Paris to the rigors of French schooling to the vast Château of Fontainebleau and its village, built, piece by piece, over many centuries. Finding Fontainebleau is for those captivated by the French way of life, for armchair travelers, and for anyone who has ever fallen in love with a place they want to visit over and over again.
Ruled France from 1515 to 1547. His initiatives transformed Fontainebleau.
Watercolor of the house rented by the Carhart family in the 1950s.
“Thad Carhart’s new memoir has all the charm and the deftness with insider knowledge of his much-loved The Piano Shop On the Left Bank. It’s both hilarious and profound, a delight, at all its levels. It’s a book to come back to again and again.” — Rosalind Brackenbury, author of Becoming George Sand
“A delicious journey into a France we never knew and wish we did. Long before mass tourism and globalization France was simple, soulful, and every inch stimulating. Carhart knew it all and shares this with us with the deftness and insight of a master storyteller.”
— Leonard Pitt, author of Walks Through Lost Paris and Paris: a Journey Through Time
“Charming and vivid and sweet, Finding Fontainebleau is full of the hopeful ambiance of Americans discovering France in the post-war era.”
— Alice Kaplan, author of French Lessons and Dreaming
“Anyone who grew up in an American baby boom split level will love reading about how the undaunted Carhart family moved from utterly predictable suburban Virginia to the utterly unpredictable environs of Fontainebleau. I learned, I laughed, I marveled, I yearned to transport myself to Fontainebleau.”
— David Laskin, author of The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the 20th Century
“Finding Fontainebleau is mesmerizing, frequently hilarious, and hauntingly beautiful. No one understands the French character like Carhart. If you loved The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, you will fall even more deeply in love with Finding Fontainebleau.”
— Judith Hooper, author of Alice in Bed
“Beautifully written, Thad Carhart’s new book is a delight, happily meandering down memory lane through storybook ‘Phone-Ten-Blow.’ Simply marvelous!”
— David Downie, author of Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light
“I don’t think I can pay it a greater compliment than to report that reading it sent me to Paris’s Gare de Lyon, there to board a train to Fontainebleau, which I saw with new eyes.”
— Penelope Rowlands, author of Paris Was Ours
A talk with Thad Carhart about Finding Fontainebleau
Many parts of Finding Fontainebleau are written in the same vein as The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. What do you feel are the similarities, and the differences?
I’ve been very lucky with The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. Now in its 21st edition, it has sold over 160,000 copies in the U.S. alone since it first appeared. A writer is never entirely sure why a book captures the public’s imagination, but I think a big part of Piano Shop’s appeal has been the look at French life away from the familiar tourist circuit. It’s not that easy to get below the surface of things in France, and readers seem to have been hungry for stories about a French approach to things in Paris. In this respect, Finding Fontainebleau has a similar voice and scope, though the setting of the little Parisian shop is replaced by our family’s big old rented house in Fontainebleau and the adjacent Château.
What separates the two books is a focus in Finding Fontainebleau on France in the 50s, as experienced by an American family. The period covered is greater, too, moving back and forth from my childhood to more recent times, when my wife and I settled in Paris and raised our own children here.
A point both books share is the story of two Frenchmen – the shop’s owner, Luc, in Piano Shop; the Château’s chief architect, Patrick Ponsot, in Finding Fontainebleau – who go about their business with a seriousness of purpose coupled with an abiding sense of light humor which could only be French. While Finding Fontainebleau is in no way intended as a kind of “prequel” to Piano Shop, I like to think of them as companion volumes, drawing the reader in to aspects of French life that are otherwise inaccessible.
This model revolutionized French cars when it first appeared in 1955.
You’ve lived in Paris for more than 25 years and could have chosen any number of subjects that are better known. Why write about Fontainebleau?
The short answer is that I lived there as a child, and so there has always been a gravitational pull to a place that had such a strong effect on my early life. The longer response is that I came to understand the extraordinary importance of Fontainebleau as a site only as an adult. In that sense my arc has been from the happenstance of childhood to the appreciation than an adult can bring to bear only after learning much more about France.
I’ve visited most of the great châteaux of France over the years – Versailles, of course, but also Chambord, Chenonceaux, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Chantilly, and many others. I have my favorites, naturally enough, but I am not the only one to observe that there is no site quite so rich, storied, or delightful as Fontainebleau. It is one of the oldest places continually occupied by the kings of France, a direct connection to medieval times. For example, Thomas à Becket, the exiled Archbishop of Canterbury, consecrated the original chapel at Fontainebleau in 1169. A line of rulers favored Fontainebleau from the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance, the French Baroque, the Enlightenment, and past the Revolution to the two Napoleons of the 19th century, and each left his mark. Now the French Republic attends to its treasures on behalf of the people of France.
My story is two-fold: the account of living in this remarkable town as a boy, going to French schools, visiting Paris on weekends; and my return to the Château as a grown-up when I was able to witness significant parts of the ongoing restoration of its rooms by French experts. I think there’s an inherent allure about the site that will capture the imagination of readers once they know the contours of the story.
“I must not shout in line”
Why is it that Fontainebleau isn’t better known?
The simplest reason, I think, is that Versailles occupies the field as the “go to” château for visitors to Paris. Fontainebleau, by contrast, is a kind of Sleeping Beauty that has yet to come into its own. But the reasons are in fact more complex than that. No single personality is associated with Fontainebleau, as is the case with Louis XIV and Versailles. One of Fontainebleau’s most attractive features is the fact that an unbroken continuum of French art, style, and architecture can be seen intact. A particularly French notion of restraint infuses the rooms: grand, certainly, but seldom showy. Fontainebleau’s subtleties are multiple, and they cohere over time, creating an atmosphere that is both captivating and unique. It takes some time, and some imagination, to drink in its splendors.
Your family arrived in Fontainebleau less than ten years after the war, and throughout Finding Fontainebleau there’s an almost palpable sense of the War and the Occupation in France. Why is this?
I was born well after the war, so everything associated with it seemed to me at the time like ancient history. But of course a decade is not long at all in historical terms. It was only much later that I came to understand how World War II had shaken the entire country to its core. This was the France we arrived in, still recovering from the trauma of battle, privation, shortages, and the presence of the enemy on French soil for four long years.
The parts of my narrative that touch on this are the things I noticed as a child: people picking up dropped pieces of coal from the gutter; the shock when my mother found that our babysitter was illiterate because of the war’s convulsions; the discovery that our house had been used to house German officers during the Occupation. Only when I returned with my own children did I fully appreciate the remarkable achievement of the French in first surviving, then thriving as a nation. That, too, is part of the book’s story.
In Finding Fontainebleau, as in your other books, you touch on the whole notion of living “in between” two languages, two countries, two cultures. Why is this important?
My immersion in French during the years in Fontainebleau changed everything. Children aren’t given a vote in such matters; it just happened. As with anyone who grows up conversant in two languages, it altered the way I look at the world, in big ways and small. It meant that I developed a healthy skepticism for occasional French posturing, but also an abiding affection for a country that is far more beguiling than the prevalent ideas of many outsiders would suggest. I don’t regard myself as a missionary for things French, but I do enjoy telling stories that allow others to appreciate the human qualities that still set France apart.
In 1956, Renault’s “Shooting Star” held the land speed record of 191 m.p.h. for turbine-powered cars.