One Saturday afternoon in Paris, a New York Times correspondent was baking cookies in her running clothes and ran out of butter. Dashing to a convenience store, she ran into a French foreign ministry official who invited her for coffee - rumpled appearance and all.
The official pointed out that her street, the impossibly stylish rue du Bac "is not the Upper West Side" of New York, where it might be acceptable to traipse about in sweats. The American shot back that this was her neighborhood and she should be able to wear whatever she wants. "You can," he replied, "but you shouldn't."
In France, you see, dressing sloppily is not only an insult to yourself but also to anyone and everyone you interact with.
Times Paris correspondent Elaine Sciolino's "La Seduction" is crammed with such anecdotes, illustrating how the secrets and subtleties of seduction drive all aspects of French life - from food to social faux pas, fashion to foreign policy.
She explains, however, that French seduction is not simply sexual: "The excitement comes less from gratification than desire." The verb "seduce" has a softer connotation in France - indeed the rather sinister sounding diplomatic term "operation seduction" translates to "charm offensive." Still, a writer tells Sciolino that seduction is like breathing for the French, and Alain Baraton, gardener at the palace of Versailles, calls it "the essence of life."
Yes, the book will make you want to fly to France to sip champagne - maybe even find some stranger to seduce - among the wondrous gardens of Versailles; to stroll past the Eiffel Tower and its carefully layered paint job so that its color appears uniform in any light; or attend a power dinner party where risotto with scallops is the first course and the conversation is at once head-swimmingly sophisticated and seemingly effortless.
It's a nice read just for the Frenchness that rubs off as you turn the pages and learn that some schoolchildren in France are required to use fountain pens and are graded on the beauty of their handwriting; that professional women take classes to shed the chirpiness in their voices; and that entire seminars are offered on table settings and dining habits. Who knew that kissing a woman's hand must only be done indoors, or that asparagus is to be eaten with your fingers but sorbet with your fork?
Sciolino falls into the trap, however, of too frequently comparing France and America. The book gets bogged down in excess us-versus-them-isms, which detract from its strengths, offering tips for surviving life in France as an outsider, for embracing haughty yet exquisite French quirkiness.
The author nonetheless adroitly notes that the same magnetism that permeates French seduction can be overpowering, morphing into the rudeness the French have long been known for.
While Sciolino's is a decidedly sympathetic view of French life, she observes that the French are also far too inflexible to retain much relevance globally and that they are struggling to cope with their new realities at home. Multiculturalism, for instance, doesn't fit with the national tradition of romanticism, and leaves many of the country's minority ethnicities feeling resentful - fueling race riots.
"Seduction is the best France has to offer. When it works, it's magic: it is hidden, mysterious and oriented toward a glorious, crystallized, ideal image," she writes. "But it can also entail inefficiency, fragility, ambiguity, and a process that at any time can end badly."