The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt


I don’t remember where I read about this novella, but it filled the goal set for this New Directions series:  “the pleasure of reading a great book from cover to cover in an afternoon.” Well, perhaps not “great” and for me it’s one that “could” be read in an afternoon.

The seventeen-year old Marguerite schools us in what she learned from her Maman, who taught her how to live among the super-rich. While the English understand wool, they are not good at creating garments and by English, she means the Scots of the Outer Hebrides. There are so many things to learn. Marguerite and Maman live in Marrakech and Maman learned that you leave the country during Ramadan, pay your servants while you’re gone and come back not one, but two weeks after the end of Ramadan, having left generous Eid gifts. Maman’s rules guaranteed she would have many people willing to help her as needed.

Marguerite wakes one morning in Paris to learn that Maman has disappeared and that (SPOILER ALERT) , Maman and her “father” had kidnapped her when she was a baby and now she was on her own, the money gone. Throughout the early chapters we hear the voice of the editor Bethany who is advising Marguerite on how to write her story to earn the two million publisher’s advance.

Marguerite won’t be following that advice, because it would have meant breaking Maman’s rule against “mauvais ton” (bad taste). She invites Bethany to lunch in an appropriate restaurant to break the news to her and has ordered a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet for them. But Bethany has no idea that this is good wine and merely wants to know how the underage Marguerite was able to order wine. And that’s just one way Bethany underestimates Marguerite. Bethany insists that to receive the advance, she must write a book in “mauvais ton,” but soon learns that the book contract that everyone signed had been changed by Marguerite and no one took care to read it before signing.

This was very fun to read and the more I think about it, the more I like it.

Helen DeWitt, The English Understand Wool, New Directions, 2022, 69 pages. Available at the public library.

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