Don’t be misled by the title of Gully Wells’s beguiling memoir, “The House in France.” While it does feature an evocative chunk of Provencal real estate, the book’s true focus as it flits between swinging ‘60s London, bohemian Oxford and New York’s British expatriate community is not a place but a person: the house’s owner, Dee Wells, the author’s mercurial mother.
La Migoua was little more than a shack at the wrong end of the Cote d’Azur when the American-born Wells bought it in 1962. By then, she had already served as a sergeant major in the Canadian army, lived in Paris, wed and jilted a dashing diplomat, moved with their only child, Gully, to London and launched a career as a journalist.
She had also managed to maneuver A.J. “Freddie” Ayer, the celebrated philosopher and notorious womanizer, into marriage. The home this couple built for young Gully buzzed with ideas, love and visiting luminaries like Isaiah Berlin, Stephen Spender and Alan Bennett.
There are cameos, too, from White Russian royals, an American Indian chief from South Dakota and even Bobby Kennedy. Yet it is Dee who dominates the book.
At her best, Wells writes, her mother was more fun than anyone. That didn’t make her easy to live with. Curse-filled rages, for instance, were only partially mitigated by a capacity for kindness that stretched to setting out water for thirsty wasps.
Off to Oxford
“Take a chance” was Dee’s mantra; naturally, Gully became “the prissiest, most conservative girl in all of swinging London.” That changed just in time for her to go to Oxford and fall madly in love with a velvet-pants-wearing Martin Amis, marking the start of an on-and-off romance that would endure for almost a decade.
They did acid on the lawn of Exeter College and played at domesticity. Amis dedicated his first novel, “The Rachel Papers,” to Wells in 1973. She can’t resist mentioning that Amis borrowed her description of his mouth -- “shaped like a crinkle-cut chip” -- and used it in another novel.
This is Wells’s first book, and she writes with a confident lightness of touch. The same sanguine, modest sensibility that saw her through her unconventional childhood is what provides its considerable charm.
Boldfaced names never feel dropped, even when they belong to boxing champ Mike Tyson and a teenage Naomi Campbell (I won’t spoil the scene’s comedy with a precis). Descriptions of Provence’s bounty during annual trips to La Migoua -- figs ripe to bursting, fat bunches of fragrant herbs -- are kept to a refreshing minimum.
There is darkness here, too. A low point in Wells’s childhood was being sent to a classmate’s Spanish-themed birthday party dressed as a peasant protesting Franco. Her half-brother, Nick Ayer, had an altogether tougher time. Twelve years her junior, he was on hand to witness the tempestuous disintegration of his parents’ marriage.
Inexplicably attractive to women, Freddie Ayer was almost entirely unable to process other people’s emotions with his fabled brain. (Wells calls him an “Aspergian snail.”) This unfortunate combination made him an unconscionable philanderer, though he finally found himself in trouble when he fell hard for Vanessa Lawson, whose husband, Nigel, would later become Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Not to be outdone, Dee took up very publicly with an American fashion designer, Hylan Booker, and wrote a bestselling roman a clef, “Jane.” As divorce loomed, Nick was left to drift into a serious drug habit.
Move to New York
Meanwhile, Gully Wells married, moved to New York and became a mother. Later, she was hired as an editor at Conde Nast Traveler by Harold Evans.
Wells seems to have inherited her mother’s joie de vivre, but not her penchant for risk-taking or her caustic streak. She acknowledges cliches, and then delights in them nevertheless, whether it’s her first experience of love with Amis or a night of Sinatra and champagne at a travel agents’ convention in Egypt. Her unapologetic sunniness may be a loyal daughter’s gentle rebellion against the exacting expectations that drove her smart, acerbic mother.
“The House in France” is published by Knopf in the U.S. and Bloomsbury in the U.K. (307 pages, $26.95, 16.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)