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There are six main characters in this book which is really three stories in one. Nico, Philippe and Chantal know each other, and Nico knows Josie, and Philippe knows Riley, and Chantal knows Jeremy, but Josie and Riley and Jeremy don't know each other or anyone else. The first three are French tutors who have private lessons with their foreign students on the streets of Paris, using the city as a better backdrop for learning than a stuffy classroom. This week they each have Americans engaging their services, and over the course of one day the lives of students and teachers all change in ways they never expected.
Except for the short introduction and brief conclusion, this is three very distinct stories, one after another. Josie is a French teacher from the States looking to brush up her skills, but this trip to Paris is not at all how she planned it. She is alone, not with her lover, and even the dashing young Frenchman who is escorting her around the city can't cheer her up. Riley is an expat who has moved over with her husband. She has two adorable children and a life many back home would envy, but she's unhappy and frustrated and liable to doing things she knows she shouldn't. Jeremy has also come to Paris with his spouse, but she is a glamorous Hollywood star and he feels somewhat in her shadow. To entertain him she buys him his own tutor, but she might not have been so keen if she knew how gorgeous young Chantal would turn out to be.
Though set over one day, each of the three segments drift back and forth into the past, filling us in on the students' histories and giving us a more rounded picture of who they are and what brought them here. We learn very little about the tutors, only what we are told from their interactions with the students and each other on this one day, but they are still important for the story. All are impossibly beautiful, and the sexual tension with each pairing bubbles under the surface from the first page. My Spanish students always told me there were three ways to learn a language, en classe, en calle y en cama, so in the classroom, in the street, and in the bedroom, and as far as Josie, Riley and Jeremy are concerned, choosing just one of those options might not be education enough.
I said there were six leads in the story, but really there's one more, the city itself. As a visitor I found Paris rather underwhelming, but this book has made me curious about it once more as it's described in a beautiful and appealing (if a little American) way. I don't think the book would have worked quite so well had it been set in London or Manchester, and not just because English tutors might not be brimming with quite so much, let's call it, joie de vivre.
Though an English language original, the author being American, at times the style seems almost like a translation, remote, detached. It's an interesting book and I quite expected the three 'teams' to collide later on in the day so found keeping them separate an odd but intriguing move. While the back stories were at times quite unexpected, I found the activities of the day predictable in many ways which was disappointing, as was the odd way in which all the characters were ultimately quite similar in their actions, and lacking in depth. In the end, while I read all the book, I wasn't hooked or enthralled, and looking back I think I liked the idea more than the execution.
This review first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk
"The only thing that lasts is love, even when it's gone. Three French tutors meet at a small café that spills out onto the sunny Parisian backstreet of Rue du Paradis. Nico, Philippe and Chantal meet here every Wednesday morning, before leading their students along the grand boulevards, winding alleyways and sweetly perfumed jardins of the city of lights. But today's lesson will be very different - and none of them are remotely prepared. Josie arrives in Paris desperate, alone, and hopeful that this trip might mend her broken heart. Ex-pat Riley is a long way from home and drifting further and further away from her husband. Could Philippe provide the distraction she craves - and can she gain the courage to break free? Jeremy is the dutiful husband of his famous actress wife. While she is busy filming on the banks of the Seine, he is content playing second fiddle. Until he meets Chantal... In the haze of a Paris summer, long-buried secrets rise to the surface and relationships are challenged. Can the lessons learned in one day change all of their tomorrows?" (Synopsis from book)
I received a review copy of this book from American author Ellen Sussman last year, but for some reason decided against picking it up. When I received another copy of the updated cover for this book, it reminded me how much I wanted to originally read after some other reviews online I had read, and so I decided to give it a try. I had a little space in my review schedule, and felt like I needed something a bit different, and wondered if French Lessons was going to be it. I hadn't liked the new cover up until I saw it for real, and I think it's quite beautiful and under-stated - not at all in your face but subtle and soft. As I said, this was first book from Sussman so I went into reading it without any expectations, but I'm so pleased I gave it a try as it was a really lovely book.
I didn't realise when I began reading this book that although the characters were linked by the fact that they are all French language tutors in Paris, the rest of the book is actually separate tales of what each of them gets up to in the city with their latest students, and the effects this has on them as people. The book starts with the three tutors, Chantal, Nico and Philippe meeting in a café, awaiting their students for the day, not expecting to be dealt the hands they are. Nico meets American French tutor Josie, who is getting over the death of someone close to her, but is also hiding a secret she doesn't know how to deal with. Philippe meets American housewife Riley, who now lives in Paris with her family, but her marriage might be falling apart. Riley knows its wrong but feels the pull of Philippe away from her husband. Finally, Chantal is paired with film star's husband Jeremy, a man playing second fiddle to his superstar wife. Can she coax him out of his shell?
What I loved about this is how the book is defined by the three separate stories and really allows you to get immersed into them, as there is no diversion until the story has reached its conclusion and it moves onto the next one. At the beginning of each story, there is a small map of where they travel in Paris which I thought was a lovely addition, although I have to be honest and say that I didn't follow it! Josie's heart-breaking story is up first, and Sussman covers this delicate issue with ease, balancing Josie's grief with wanting to be happy about her secret, yet feeling completely isolated and over-whelmed. Josie's story is revealed gradually, and although we wouldn't perhaps usually sympathise with her, I found myself feeling incredibly sorry for this lost woman, and thought Nico was the perfect character to empathise with her. Her tale, and what they get up to in Paris, brings the truth of their realities home to both of them, and I felt this story was the best in the book by far, it really touched me.
That isn't to say of course that the other two stories, with Jeremy and Riley aren't really good too, but I just felt Josie's was my personal favourite. I found Riley a little bit dislikeable if I am honest, and I couldn't sympathise with her feelings all too much. Philippe too wasn't a particularly nice character, and this comes across as the story between the pair develops further. Jeremy and Chantal have a nice story, with her showing him her city, and Jeremy consequently realising what is important in life. Sussman has the knack of writing about these sensitive issues with ease, and with real feeling too. No matter how you feel about these characters, you can't deny that you are moved by their stories, and what happens for each of them. The fact each of the students are far away from home, somewhat alone and lost is important, and this novel conveys all of those feelings and how it makes all the other problems seem much worse. The way the characters open up easily to strangers is also interesting, and made me think.
The setting of Paris for this book is fantastic, and Sussman must have personal experience of the city because she writes it so clearly and beautifully. I enjoyed reading about all of the places that these characters visited during their sessions with their tutors, each being important in their own way. French language is of course used in the book, and most of it is explained by the English speaking characters, but when it isn't, it's clear there is a reason for that too. Sussman really explores the Parisian setting and lifestyle beautifully in the book, and weaves the individual stories of the characters into this, allowing them to develop and make momentous decisions for their lives based on their own French Lessons. I found Sussman's writing style very easy to read too, and I ploughed through the book in no time at all. There's no big shocks or cliffhangers - it doesn't need them and works perfectly without them - it's just a well written, character driven novel of discovery, truth and love. It's a lovely story with powerful themes, and is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, a great summer read.
ISBN: 978-1780333847. Published by Canvas on 5th July 2012. Pages: 256. RRP: £6.99. Also available as an eBook.
Thank you to the publishers for sending me a copy to review for http://chicklitchloe.blogspot.com
Thank you for reading.