It’s easy to understand why Don Wallace and his wife Mindy were captivated by a beautiful French island called Belle Île. Don, who grew up in California, and Mindy, who was from Hawaii, were living in a cramped, dark Manhattan apartment. Belle Île’s sunshine and surf spoke to their soul.

Nonetheless, their decision to buy a dilapidated house on the small island off the coast of Brittany didn’t make financial sense, as Wallace readily admits in The French House. The purchase wiped out their savings, and the structure still needed major repairs (or more accurately, rebuilding). As this pair of writers struggled to make a living, they had neither the time nor money to return to Belle Île for years. When they finally did, they were met with surf and sun, but also a battered home with “dust, dirt, mold everywhere.”

Don and Mindy feared they had made a terrible mistake, a view bolstered by Don’s mother’s observation: “This isn’t at all like A Year in Provence!”

In the end, the 30 years needed to restore the house did fill the family’s soul. Along with the dust, dirt and construction, they encountered a village full of kind (and sometimes crusty) characters. Mindy, Don and their son, Rory, spent idyllic weeks and months on the island, roaming its paths, enjoying picnics and Breton delicacies, watching shooting stars and soaking up the sun. They added their own touch to island life, teaching their friends and neighbors to surf. Despite their brief stays each year, they became part of the village.

The French House is a wonderful summer read, a spirited mixture of joy and nerve-wracking nitty gritty. No, it may not be A Year in Provence, but it’s the heartfelt story of a 30-year love affair with an unforgettable place.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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