Book Review: A Piano In The Pyrenees

A Piano In The Pyrenees:  The Ups And Downs Of An Englishman In The French Mountains, by Tony Hawks

There is a sub-genre of travel literature that I am familiar with [1], namely that of the humorous and somewhat daft Englishman traveling abroad.  This book fits squarely within that tradition, and if you are familiar with its tropes, and at least mildly tolerant of its bumbling middle-aged male protagonist, there is a fair amount here to enjoy.  Without a question, the author is very Nathanish, buying a home in the French Pyrenees on a bit of an impulse, continually hounded by people who harass him about being single, dealing with the joys of translating and trying to understand those around him, and generally being awkward in a mostly endearing way.  The enjoyment here is one of familiarity with the author being a fish-out-of-water, with his endearing tendency to find awkward situations and deal with them with a self-effacing sense of humor, and with his humorous footnote asides.  Not all readers are fond of bumbling Englishman abroad, but as a well-traveled and occasionally bumbling American I found a lot to appreciate in this book even if it was a bit melancholy for me to finish reading.

This narrative arc of this book is not a particularly complex one.  The author finds himself somewhat at a loss with what to do with life, and on a whim buys a house in the French Pyrenees with visions of finding himself a nice French girl and practicing the piano and living an elegant life of bucolic land ownership.  He finds himself afflicted with a curse of white vans–at various points he is the owner of a white van that proves a disastrous purchase, rents a van where he gets pulled over by the French traffic police, and is a driver in another car that is run into by a white van.  He gets to meet his neighbors and take place in their local traditions like eating large amounts of food, engaging in Catholic religious tourism, following sheep around the hillside, digging a swimming pool, playing bingo, and involving himself in various ad hoc musical entertainments.  He makes himself at home in the area and finds himself fond of his neighbors and their quirks even as they find him to be an endearing and generally enjoyable neighbor despite a certain timidity on his part.  And the book even ends happily for him as he finds his French house a good place to begin a relationship.

Perhaps this book would have been less melancholy for me if its portrayal of the life of a creative but not particularly brave middle-aged man had not been so on-the-nose.  The author comes off as a bit of a try-hard, but as someone who is certainly that sort of person I cannot fault the author for being a bit too eager to find someone, which leads his neighbors to prank him about an imaginary French girlfriend, leads him into some ambivalent flirtations that go nowhere, and eventually lead him into a relationship with someone he had known for more than a dozen years.  The author, it must be recognized, is not someone who lives in a hurry despite his occasional impulse purchases (house, pool, car).  By and large he strikes the reader as someone whose bachelorhood has led him to remain a bit immature but not as someone who is hopeless when it comes to development.  The fact that his longings for stability lead him to buy a home demonstrate that he is the sort of person who wants permanency in life, even if he had been previously unable to find it in his romantic life.  Alas, the author is a character I know all too well, and he is too close for me to feel comfortable laughing at him as is the convention of this genre of literature.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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