Book review: Triple Sex & Other Tales from an Ambassador’s Wife

Title: Triple Sex & Other Tales From An Ambassador’s Wife
Author: Carol Bujeau
Price: $25
Publisher: Burnstown Publishing House
ISBN: 978-1-77257-294-0

Reviewed by Daniel Livermore

What’s it like to work in the Canadian foreign service?  Well, here it is, titillating title and all, uncovered with panache, humour and a disarming ability to recount the foibles and failures of dinner parties and cocktails, as well as the high points of a fascinating diplomatic career. Carol Bujeau married John Holmes in 1980, shortly before he launched his diplomatic odyssey in what was then External Affairs. For more than three decades, she then became the diplomatic spouse, accompanying John to Barbados, Ghana, New York City, Jordan, Indonesia, Turkey and the Philippines, with sojourns in Ottawa in between. A blunt, gregarious spouse in either English or French, Carol Bujeau set about to help make John Holmes’ diplomatic career. As John once recounted, it was a challenge that would either make or break him.

In six substantive chapters, one for each posting covered in the book, Carol covers all of the ground-work for diplomatic spouses – the unpaid labour, the challenges of moving to new countries and continents, the trickiness of raising a family in the volatile ex-patriate life, and the multi-faceted efforts to build a career profile while almost constantly on the move. Carol became a part-time consular officer in Barbados, a development official at the US embassy in Accra, Ghana, a communications specialist in Ottawa, a bridge guru in New York, and a diamond grader in Ankara. Along the way, the self-confessed foodie became a Cordon Bleu chef, enabling her to suggest a recipe for every posting, with which she ends each substantive chapter.

As for the cocktails, ceremonies and formal dinners that are often said to constitute the bulk of diplomatic life, here’s the true story. It was work, hard work, involving long hours at the office or on the local “diplomatic circuit”, often punctuated with moments of hilarity and inappropriate anecdotes. It’s the story of travel, often to famous beaches and resorts, but also to the grottier trouble-spots where Canadians need help or where negotiations are held to end endemic conflict or provide humanitarian relief.  Along the way, friendships were made – sometimes to last for a few months or years, sometimes to last a life-time.

And the memorable characters! How about playing bridge with Michael Manley, Jamaica’s famous Prime Minister? Or joining New York’s most prestigious bridge club and meeting the old money of the US society? Or the celebrities, from British royalty to the Canadian variety, Leonard Cohen, Diana Krall, etc. And the mandatory Canadian politicians and ex-politicians, including the delightfully irreverent, home-spun Jean Chretien. The book also offers an insider’s guide to conversation-starters, like ignoring the strictures of protocol mavens to engage Prince Charles in interesting discussions.

Yet, this is no check-list of names and cities. It’s a fast-paced, beautifully crafted recollection of the way life works abroad and the variety of challenges this involves for family and friends. It starts with life as a junior part of a diplomatic delegation, and moves through John’s postings up the ladder to head of mission status in Jordan, Indonesia, Turkey and the Philippines. Along the way are outstanding diplomatic achievements, like the creation of the International Criminal Court, punctuated with tales of diplomatic faux pas, awful dinners and catastrophic cocktails. It’s also about the variety of tasks that fall to diplomats and their families, from coming to the rescue of Canadians abroad to finding creative ways to move some of the trickiest, most elusive goals in international relations, like peace in the Middle East. Along the way, Carol makes the vital point that all of this – the work, the achievements, the fun – comes down to friendships, which come from all levels of society and all backgrounds in life. And in this book, the smaller things count, including family pets acquired in unusual circumstances.

Carol Bujeau’s book is many things – funny, engaging, witty, and imaginative.  It’s a rich insight into the Canadian diplomatic journey, all told with disarming honesty and self-deprecating judgments.  If you think cookies and cocktails when you hear the word diplomacy, read Carol’s book and think again.

Daniel Livermore was a Canadian foreign service officer for more than 30 years. He is currently an honorary senior fellow, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, at the University of Ottawa.     

AUTHOR PHOTO: Courtesy Burnstown Publishing House