What does it take to go the distance? A marriage made in…France.
“Just add three letters to Paris and you have paradise.”
– Jules Renard
The family Dubois of Avenue Foch are French. That is to say, the family Dubois are different. In an age when nearly half of American marriages collapse, often in smoking heaps of anger, bitterness, pain, I often wondered, what does it take? Really, what does it take – to keep it together, if not forever, at least through thick and thin? So when I met the family Dubois of Paris’s Avenue Foch, I thought, Ah! A chance to understand how it’s done. I thought, Oh! If Tolstoy’s “happy families are all alike” idea was working out for the family Dubois, as it certainly seemed to be, given how they appeared so rich and thin and cheerful at lunches I shared with them, or quick aperitifs, then here was a family to study. So observe them, I did, like an explorer a continent foreign, with fascination. Here is what I found:
Monsieur Dubois is a successful Paris lawyer whose thriving practice rewards him well. In addition to the elegant Avenue Foch flat filled with Louis Quinze antiques, the Chamonix ski chalet and the seaside villa near St. Tropez, Monsieur Dubois has acquired the love and devotion of his assistant, the light of his life for the last 12 years and his “wife,” Madame Dubois. Madame, who bears the dubious distinction of having snatched Monsieur Dubois from his previous wife during a low point in that couple’s 22-year union, is quite the standard bearer when it comes to the myth of the “other woman.” Madame Dubois is blonde. Madame Dubois is buxom. Madame Dubois is so exquisitely ladled into itsy-bitsy snips of skimpy designer clothes that all you see coming on approach is a double-D-cup jaw-dropper. Looking beyond her vavavoom, however, here is a woman who is as sweet as crème Anglaise, a delight as kind as her waist is tiny, with a tinkly laugh and warm, bright smile.
Never mind that Monsieur Dubois is still technically – legally – married to the first Madame Dubois, and for years has merely made his home with her successor, who incidentally insists on maintaining a bachelorette flat on the Ile St. Louis, which she visits on occasion just to sit and think and maybe read. After all, a Madame Dubois does need her me-time, especially since she and Monsieur not only work side by side nine-to-five, but also share the joys and challenges of their two children, a girl of 10, and a boy of 11.
That Monsieur Dubois has never gotten around to divorcing his first wife, the “official” Madame Dubois, is not a cause for concern. At least to Madame Dubois, the original, who lives luxuriously alone on the Avenue Foch in a flat exactly opposite that of Monsieur and his current yet faux wife. Her own two children with Monsieur now grown and off on other Dubois adventures, Madame Dubois the First is a stunning woman of a certain age who is perpetually salon-tanned a burnt sienna, travels about in a cloud of Chanel No. 5, and projects the confident aura of an impeccably groomed woman who just manages on 500 zillion euros of her ex-husband’s money. But just.
Though the ex-yet-actual Madame Dubois long ago lost her husband to his assistant, the new, or proxy, Madame Dubois, she is perfectly content to keep on as Madame Dubois because, frankly, family tradition since the 9th century under Pope Adrian II of Rome, dictates that a Dubois simply does not divorce. Meanwhile, Madame Dubois, the deuxième, sees no reason on earth not to dub herself a Dubois as well, and go about her life as Monsieur’s real wife. After all, she’ll argue if anyone asks – but they won’t, because this is France – she has lived with her “little cauliflower” for years; she is the mother of half his children. Is it not she who runs Monsieur’s law office? She who serves as mistress of the flat on Avenue Foch, the Chamonix chalet, and the villa at St. Tropez? In sum, is it not her dazzling smile and wasp-waisted charm that shows up on Monsieur’s arm at all those dull but essential social functions he is forced to frequent? You can bet your baguettes, believes Madame Dubois, the imposter. The family title is just as real when earned, she will say, as it is when typed on a license at City Hall, n’est-ce-pas?
Happily, by some quirk of Europe, the two Mesdames Dubois are friends. Fast friends. And why not? Madame Dubois the initial, with an absolute horreur of having to participate in Monsieur’s endless obligations – business, social, political – is grateful to very roots of her glistening silver bob to Madame Dubois the ensuing. For it is now she, her surrogate, who assumes that loathsome cocktail party duty that for years kept Madame Dubois-the-authentic from her jigsaw puzzles, a passion. The charming blonde alternate, with an absolute horreur of having to listen ad nauseum to Monsieur’s boring stories of his glory days as bocce ball champion of France circa the Stone Age, is relived to the very tips of her peach-painted toes that the starter Madame Dubois – still his friend, his confidant – will take his late night phone calls filled with the need to talk, thus allowing Madame Dubois-the-pretend to pursue her greatest passion: sleep.
All might be well with the family Dubois, then, if it weren’t for one petite problem: lunch. Lunch is when the former-yet-official Madame Dubois will telephone her replacement, smack in the middle of the stressful, frenetic workday, and invite herself over at noon under this pretext or that. These calls, to the never-ending chagrin of the acting yet undeclared Madame Dubois, come often.
“Hello, Madame Dubois? This is Madame Dubois,” Monsieur’s initial wife will say, her tone brisk from a morning of competitive bridge. “Luncheon today, then, if you will arrange it? Très bien.”
Très bien my tarts! Monsieur’s now-serving wife has been heard to grump. For what the first Madame Dubois fails to understand is that these little midday scenes à table are in truth a family fiasco in waiting. Just ask Odette. Odette? Yes, Odette, the Dubois family chef. The live-in cook has been with Monsieur Dubois since his bachelor days, well before the arrival of any Madame Dubois, real or faux. And how Odette has longed! How Odette has prayed! How Odette has wanted all along to be a Madame Dubois herself. The cook’s unrequited crush on Monsieur Dubois (he never once has looked up from his fig confit to notice her looks of love ) has left Odette fuming over her flambés, and in a permanent, irreversible snit. Yet Odette dares not quit. These luncheons with Monsieur and his wives are a prime opportunity to figure out what on earth a Madame Dubois has that she hasn’t, how a Madame Dubois succeeds when she can’t.
“Ah, non, non, non!” nevertheless moans the chef, bathed in dread, whenever informed by Madame Dubois the Second that she should set an extra place at lunch for Madame Dubois the First. “I refuse to have said behind my back that my biftek tastes of old tires. I will not hear my soufflés are like suds!” She moans: “Ah, non. I refuse to cook for that woman.”
“That woman,” the ex-yet-official Madame Dubois, is a terror with a terrine de foie gras; she is exacting in the perfection of a béchamel sauce. Quite unlike the current yet unconfirmed Madame Dubois, who wouldn’t know a smoked duck if they formally introduced, she can cook like nobody’s business. All the while polite, and throughout each course kind, the beginning Madame Dubois spares no luncheon opportunity to torment Odette for what she interprets as her culinary foolery. Her mealtime miserables. To hear Odette tell it, Madame Dubois the approved, with Madame Dubois the unsanctioned looking on and saying nothing in her defense, will with a wince of displeasure poke at Odette’s prize pâté en croûte with her fork. With her spoon she will not more than nibble, listlessly, at the cook’s four-star Fôret Noire. Is she worried about her weight? Already stuffed by too many late breakfast brioches? Whatever the reason she refuses to eat, the acting Madame Dubois, ravenous, sops up the meal’s last drop of sauce with bits of baguette and polishes off even the parsley garni.
“Really, ma chère, it is a fright, your fear of salt,” the first Madame Dubois will comment to Odette, while says the second, “May I please have more potatoes Anna?
Pleasing and feeding these two Mesdames Dubois so opposite in appetite is a job nigh impossible, will admit Odette. But she keeps on cooking, for what can she do? Monsieur Dubois and his wives, I and II, have so much fun at these lunches – enjoying their Château Minuty Rosé, snickering at secret jokes – that her sad, bitter heart can’t help but melt like the butter of her best sole meuinère when it hits the heated skillet.
“Madame Dubois,” Madame Dubois will say to her stand-in, “do you not agree that Monsieur Dubois is looking trés fit since he joined the gym?” Here Madame Dubois the imposter will catch the eye of her provocative predecessor and the two Mesdames Dubois will erupt: they will laugh and laugh as if they cannot stop. After all, when it comes to the husband they have in common, his particular Dubois oddities are such that…well, it takes a Dubois to understand. Hearing them laugh, Monsieur himself looks up from his steak tartare, takes in one then the other of his wives, and no doubt exclaims to himself, My, what a wonder is life! The family Dubois, like peas in a pod, simply get along.
And I, ever watching in awe, jot in my field notes that what it takes to go the distance is a marriage made in France. Whether it’s the wine, the women, or the ways, so civilized, the happy family Dubois – wink-wink to us all – makes it work, whatever the quirks.