Be It Ever So Humble, This French House Is Not Yet a Home

A Place in Normandy

By Nicholas Kilmer

Henry Holt and Company

255 pp., $22.50

If you've ever loved a house that is crumbling around you faster than your wallet and weekends can plug up the breaches, Nicholas Kilmer has written a book for you.

There are names for such houses: fix-'em-upper, money pit, "Nightmare on Elm Street," and - in extreme cases - marriage wrecker. To these, add Kilmer's "A Place in Normandy."

What's wrong with the Kilmers' 15th-century family farmhouse in Normandy, France? Start with rotting beams, crumbling plaster, a sunken kitchen you can't climb out of, a shower you can't stand up in, and a driveway that turns impassable with the first soupon of rain.

Along with bats and the perennial large black spider, there's an owl that from the chimney launches demolition runs on antique porcelains in the dining room. When the water does work, the gushing pipes turn the lower floor into a spring.

Outside, the garden terraces are "striving to become woods again." The stable and cider-press outbuilding have collapsed, and last summer's renters appear to have walked off with the sheets and the wicker tea tray.

The house is an ocean and at least one culture away from Cambridge, Mass., where the author and his far-from-convinced wife must decide whether to take over the 50-acre inherited property full time. The book covers a few days' visit to Normandy, during which the author needs to make sure things are set for the summer tenants and to convince himself that owning the place makes any sense.

As expected, the house generates a new urgency every 10 pages or so, including two sets of unexpected house guests. Worse, anything close to a solution to this accretion of problems must be worked out in French - a language the author does not speak well - and only after classic confrontations with local shopkeepers and workmen possessing their own sense of time and space.

The maxim held by French shopkeepers, that "the customer is never right," is proved by this book. Take the owl problem: The author thinks chicken wire is part of the solution; the local hardware clerk is not so sure.

"I told him to cut me five meters. M. Thouroude insisted that for my own good, he must know how, I intended to proceed. 'I'm going to roll it and stuff it up the chimney,' I told him. Thouroude shook his head and snipped dolefully: He would rather 'sell me nothing at all than participate in such a grave miscarriage of hardware.'"

Plumbers, car rental agencies, tradesman, house guests, all add their own demands to the costs of taking on this eccentric, damp, moldy, rambling wreck of a house.

But in the end, the house is more than the sum of its structural woes. It's also cuckoos and nightingales, cows chewing grass soaked with the night dew, lungfuls of deep grassy air, armloads of purple foxglove and yellow broom hauled out of the woods to brighten a dining room, a daughter singing lullabies to spiders in the billiard room.

It's the human associations (illustrated here by wonderful family photos and quirky plunges back and forth in history) that made its past and will ensure its future. The plumbers show up. The mason comes up with a solution. And a neighbor turns up with the wicker tea tray full of freshly pressed, quick-dry sheets.

This is a book where family, friends, and a sense of place count. It isn't to be read for the plot. You read it if you've been assigned to clean the Augean stables and don't quite know where to begin. You read it if you've ever had to laugh your way through an impossible situation or want to learn how.

This is also an author you'd like to meet, and a place you'd like to visit. "A Place in Normandy" is a good way to do both.

* Gail Russell Chaddock is the Monitor's Paris correspondent.

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