My French Whore by Gene Wilder

I have always enjoyed the acting of Gene Wilder. Forget Johnny Depp, Wilder is Willy Wonka to me. Movies like Blazing Saddles and Stir Crazy still make me laugh. I had never thought of him as a writer, however, until his first work of fiction, the novella My French Whore, came my way (his well received memoir was published last year). Clearly, Wilder is multi-talented.

Not surprising coming from Wilder, it is a humorous but melodramatic story. The slim book tells the story of Paul Peachy, an amateur actor and train conductor from Wisconsin who impulsively leaves his cold hearted wife and enlists in the Army during World War I. As the child of recent immigrants he speaks fluent German. And as a result, when the infamous German Spy Harry Stroller turns himself in believing the war is all but over for his side, Peachy is asked to try and gain useful information from the prisoner.

When Peachy faces battle for the first time his closest friends are immediately killed and he runs off into the woods in terror and despair. In a fit of inspiration and courage, when he is captured by German soldiers he impersonates Stroller and pulls it off. This leads to his being allowed to “recuperate” in a German castle and live the good life of luxurious beds, champagne, and beautiful countryside vistas. A part of this good life is an introduction to Annie, the French courtesan of the books title.

Despite an awkward beginning, Peachy soon falls in love with Annie and uses his false life to enjoy her company whenever he can. Peachy is even able to put his acting ability – he spent time in the community theater back home – to rescue an American Army Captain captured by the Germans, but he can’t keep up the ruse indefinitely.

In many ways My French Whore is a silly, sappy, love story. But Wilder infuses it with enough wit and heart that it is enjoyable regardless. As Carolyn See put it in the Washington Post: “This is just fluff, but it’s sweet fluff.” Wilder has written a straightforward and charming love story with a quirky sense of humor – again not surprising given Wilder’s history. There isn’t a great deal of character development – it is less than 180 pages – and some of the story line is improbable, but it works somehow if you just let go and enjoy it for what it is. It isn’t a deep work of art, but it is an enjoyable story with some nice touches. Perhaps knowing his limits, Wilder doesn’t try to hold the readers attention too long. He tells his story and wraps it up with a poignant ending.

According to this short but interesting interview, Wilder has gotten the writers bug and has another novel in the works. It should be interesting to see if Wilder can further hone this craft as he did his comedic acting. His first effort showed enough promise that I will be sure to pick up his next work. In the meantime, if you are a Gene Wilder fan you will want to check out My French Whore.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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