MS. WELLS’S BOOK loosely qualifies as a memoir of Martin as well. But while it lovingly recounts the days when she and Mr. Amis had the same shag haircut and shared a single bed at Oxford, it is more than mere kiss-and-tell.
The House in France combines travel writing, personal narrative and a family history that is brilliant, tragic and dense with boldface names. Ms. Wells’s American-born mother, Dee Chapman, was a headstrong columnist and television pundit who ran away to Europe and seduced her father, Alfred Wells, an American diplomat in Paris. She later married A. J. “Freddie” Ayer, one of the most prominent British philosophers of his time and, in Ms. Wells’s words, an “Aspergian snail.”
Dee and Freddie bounced between Oxford, London, and the titular summer house in Provence, dragging Ms. Wells to every dinner party along the way. Her adolescence was punctuated by encounters with Bertrand Russell, Bobby Kennedy, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Arranged play dates with the children of her parents’ wealthy friends seamlessly transitioned into University friendships.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Gully,” Vogue editor Anna Wintour wrote The Observer in an email. “She has, thankfully, pretty much always been a part of my life. Her mother, Dee, and her stepfather, Freddie Ayer, were great friends of my parents’, and even though children in that situation don’t always get along by virtue of being forced to spend time together, we most definitely did.” The two remain close friends.
When Ms. Wells first thought she might write a memoir of her own, she talked it over with her agent, Irene Skolnick, a friend of 30 years, who knew her mother and was familiar with her travel writing at Conde Nast Traveler. “I thought it was a little presumptuous of me,” Ms. Wells said. “I mean who cares?”
Ms. Skolnick urged her to weave together her knowledge of the history and geography of Provence, which she had written about at length in Traveler—and which has repeatedly proven its allure on best-seller lists.
Publisher Sonny Mehta, another longtime acquaintance and former Londoner, bought the book and quickly found an editor in Shelley Wanger, who understood Ms. Wells’s sensibility. “Shelley is an old friend, we’re on the same wavelength, with a similar sort of background,” Ms. Wells said.