Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review: French Lessons by Ellen Sussman

I took seven years of French and spent some of the summer after my senior year in high school in France. My daughter wants to take French as her foreign language when she gets to high school. We definitely find a mystique about France, the French, and Paris in particular. If I ever get there again, I want to walk through the city with a French tutor at my side and completely immerse myself in the Paris experience. In the meantime, I can read books about this fabled city.

Opening with an introduction to three French tutors and their complicated personal lives, the book is followed by three distinct stories and then a final chapter on the tutors. This structure allows Sussman to examine love in many different aspects and at various stages: beginning, disappointed, forbidden, waning, and steadily constant. Nico, a poet who has just discovered that he is going to be published, is in love with fellow tutor Chantal, holding the memory of their night together close to him. But Chantal is with Philippe, a handsome but morally casual fellow tutor, and her evening with Nico was a bid for attention or revenge or something from Philippe. Tangled as their lives are, these three French language tutors are about to meet up with three very different Americans and the emotional baggage they have lugged to Paris.

Nico is assigned to Josie, a high school French teacher who has come to Paris grieving and newly pregnant. She was supposed to come to the city with her married lover but she is unexpectedly alone and finding it difficult to put one foot in front of the other. As she and Nico wander Paris together, working on her conversation, he becomes acutely attuned to her fragile emotions, supporting her as she faces the death of love and the uncertainty of her future. Their easy, flirtatious, and comforting banter allows for the emotionally charged revelation of her affair and its terrible end. Her pain teaches Nico even as she learns from it herself.

Philippe has a standing tutoring session with Riley, an American ex-pat struggling with her situation and floundering in her marriage. She has two small children, one of whom is an infant, and an emotionally unavailable husband. She cannot find anything positive in her life in Paris, feeling alone and friendless. For a change, she and Philippe go out into the city instead of their usual lesson in her home and because of Riley's low mastery of French, they remain isolated from each other, conversing at cross-purposes and without complete understanding. Riley exists fully only to herself, continuing only to be one of many women in Philippe's orbit and even as she realizes that this is the way in which she has come to live her entire life in Paris, she does not fight against it, simply acquiescing, loveless and resigned.

Chantal is on the final day of her walking tour tutoring session with Jeremy, the husband of an international film star in Paris on location for a movie. He has tagged along with wife Diana but is an outsider to the film world and so has stayed occupied by taking these lessons, building his confidence in the spoken langauge. He finds that he is attracted to his beautiful tutor but as he fantasizes about her, he also knows that what he has with his wife is special. As Jeremy learns that a steady, comfortable kind of love is not one to forsake, Chantal has her own revelations.

Sensual and intriguing, the novel takes place over the course of only one day in Paris. It is tied togther both by the French tutors but also by the presence of the movie being filmed in Paris, with each of the characters seeing in the day's movie scene a reflection of themselves and of the day they've had. There is graphic sex, some jarring and discordant, but in many ways that is its function in the story. There is loss and longing woven throughout the connected stories but there is also love, residual, real, and undying. The writing is flowing and easy and I absolutely devoured the story in one sitting. Sussman has captured Paris and its feel beautifully here and has created wonderfully human characters who experience a full range of emotions, involving the reader and pushing her to think and reflect on this messy life and our relationships within it.

For more information about Ellen Sussman and the book visit her webpage.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. I love a book that can sweep me away AND that I can finish in one sitting. What a treat!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  2. I think I just might enjoy this one. Thanks for sharing your enjoyment with us.


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