Is the story of a young Scottish couple who go to Paris for the husband, an academic, to write a thesis on the differences between the Cartesian French and the pragmatic British. Paris and France are wonderful. But everything goes disastrously wrong. They betray each other, he with a French aristocrat, she with a Parisian Lothario. He is challenged to fight a duel by a cuckolded sadist who means to kill him.
Driving into Paris, Gavin and Lesley Stuart create a jam around the Arc de Triomphe which stops the capital in its tracks. It is only the first of a whole series of catastrophes.
But Paris is an eye-opener with its chic boutiques, pavement cafes, the street demos by everything from lawyers to prostitutes, the Left Bank with its writers and intellectuals. Gavin’s head is turned by the elegant and alluring women. And he is also stunned by supermarket women shoppers discussing high finance.
At the Sorbonne where he teaches, he meets Henri Lombard, a cynic who berates his countrymen as braggart, arrogant and big-headed. Lombard sees the trinity Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité as a myth when France is really a social strait-jacket, caste-ridden and cut-throat. English lecturer, Massingham-Smith, hates everything French and is still fighting Agincourt, Trafalgar and Waterloo. His wife has more earthy notions about France and l’amour.
And in the next classroom there is Germaine de Rochefort, aristocratic beauty and voluptuary, bent on seducing him by fair or foul means.
Meantime, Lesley is pursued by Raoul, a French Lothario who deploys absurd stratagems to bed her when she is only too willing. But events thwart them every turn.
La politesse seems also a myth, breaking down in queues and crowded buses where Gavin sees pitched battles. Is la politesse there to prevent people from murdering each other?
In the National Assembly he learns the meaning of eloquence as he listens to an up-coming politician orating passionately for an hour about merde (shit) on the capital’s pavements. And in the Palais de Justice a lawyer pleads for a man on a minor theft charge with more fire and verbal dexterity than an English Silk defending a double murderer.
His venture into a chick Paris bordello is an anti-climax; but in a literary salon he discovers the Newest New Novel which has no story, no characters, no interest and is written expressly as a piece of instant oblivion. However, he stumbles on the real plot (chercher la femme) in the bedrooms off the salon.
On a visit to the Count Rohan-Beaumont’s country seat he meets the countess whom he had last seen in a sexual stranglehold in her literary salon. The count, who dresses like a peasant, explodes the myth of French wine-tasting. On that visit, Germaine seizes the occasion to trap him and seduce him.
In Paris, Lesley and Raoul finally discover a rendezvous where they can make love, but again it is a charade. At the vital moment Raoul, the Gallic lover, turns impotent.
Germaine and Gavin fare better but they are indiscreet and are betrayed by a cousin. Guy de Rochefort, a crackshot, challenges him to a duel and means to kill him.
Gavin accepts the duel. But on the countdown he fires into the air. Rochefort’s bullet ricochets and wounds but does not kill Gavin, who becomes something of a hero.
When Lesley reads his thesis notes she realizes it would work better as a novel--and a best seller.