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American graduate Kate leaves the States for a job in Paris, working for a Prada-wearing-Devil style boss, world famous photo-journalist Lydia Schell. She's lived in France before, so she thinks she knows what she's letting herself in for. She doesn't. So while the title doesn't refer to the language itself (she is beautifully fluent even before she arrives), there are many lessons for her to learn, from how to act as a go-between for Lydia and her husband Clarence (and his graduate students), to how to handle the handsome Olivier and the bon chic bon genre boys, to where to source the lavish ingredients her employer needs for dinner or how to make a proper timeline. The Berlin Wall is about to fall, the continent is buzzing, and Kate is a part of it, for better or worse.
I began reading this book while in Paris, and it was a lovely way to start as the descriptions were so vivid that I could live the city through the pages, and then step outside and live it again. Kate is an interesting heroine because she's an Ivy League grad who speaks fluent French, thanks to her previous stint in the country, so this isn't your typical tale of an American abroad. French phrases are scattered throughout the text. It's not a language I excel at, but even when I didn't know exactly how something would translate, I got the gist, and for me it was an important way to keep my mind focussed on Paris. Kate, however, didn't quite seem excited enough about her new life in the city. She spends a lot of time analysing what other people are doing and saying, rather than doing and saying things herself, and it almost feels like she's living other people's lives rather than carving out one of her own. The job is demanding, and her memories of her family from years before are not always happy, but still, while her uni friends are probably doing boring entry level jobs back home, she's living in Paris! She could be a bit happier about it.
Lessons In French is truly two books in one. There's the story promised by the blurb on the back and the artwork on the cover (a huge change from the hardback edition) and but then you get the story that actually features between the pages. The two could not be more different, and I think this was one of the reasons it took me a while to get into this book, because I kept expecting it to morph into something else.
This is not chicklit, and if you're expecting this (understandable, from the cover) you will be disappointed. While the story has evil bosses and romantic comedies and misunderstandings and a lot of the other ingredients, they add up to a different reading experience because the prose is serious and wordy, and the author prefers the 'why use one line when you can use half a page' approach to narration. The result is something I'll describe as unusual rather than odd, a story that almost doesn't know what it is (or why it's being written now, rather than contemporaneously). I didn't know the city in the late 80s, so I struggled to pick up on anchors that kept the story in that time rather than the present day, and yet I did enjoy it. It was refreshing to have an American take on Paris that is different from the Hollywood standard, whereby every hotel room in the city has a view of the Eiffel Tower, and the natives cycle around wearing stripy t-shirts and berets, and holding baguettes (I can officially report that bikes are now out, and scooters are, disturbingly in. The baguette cliché still happily holds true though).
This is a more serious, more intelligent, more thought-provoking book than it initially appears. If you approach it with an open mind, it's there to be enjoyed, because it has a lot going for it, but in true French style, be prepared to wait around because it's slow and lazy in the beginning, and takes a while to get going.
This review first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk
What budding artist wouldn't grab the chance at a job in Paris to work with the world-famous photo-journalist Lydia Schell? For Katherine, who just finished university, it will also be like going home. This is because, as a young girl, she lived in Paris for two years when her father was dying from cancer. Back then, she stayed with her cousins and their son in a poor part of the city. But the memories of that time - including the cruelty of her cousin Etienne - aren't going to get in the way of making new ones. This time Kate will be renting a room in the Schell's house, located in one of Paris' most classy neighborhoods. So what if Kate doesn't know what she'll be doing or that Lydia is a very difficult person? And how hard could it be for a Yale graduate with unaccented and fluent French in the city of every artist's dreams? Plus, what better time would there be to work with a photo-journalist than just when the Berlin Wall is about to come down? This is the debut novel "Lessons in French" by Hilary Reyl.
The back cover of this book calls it a coming of age novel that is partially reminiscent of "The Devil Wears Prada." Certainly Lydia is very much a 'boss from hell,' in treating Kate more like a dogsbody than an assistant. But she's not the only one. Lydia's husband Clarence is working on a book during his sabbatical, and when Lydia is away, Kate must have time to help him, surely? It doesn't matter that he has his own assistant, the dark and mysterious Claudia, because she is working on her thesis. The Schells also enlist Kate to help their daughter Portia get over her ex-boyfriend, Olivier, as well as care for Orlando - their errant son Joshua's dog. In short, Kate is at this family's beck and call, both physically and emotionally. And of course, what would a year in Paris be without a bit of romance included. But with this bunch, even that doesn't come without complications.
The question is where does Kate come into all this? How can she develop her own style as an artist, and her own self as a person, if she's so wrapped up in trying to mirror everyone and everything around her? This is the essence of this book. With all the deceptions between the many characters, and the different dramas that they draw Kate into, we feel that Kate is floundering. Kate aptly describes this at one point in the story when she says "I ventured the idea...that I was living inside a Picasso, where everyone talked to me about everyone else so that I saw their lives from all angles while they had no idea about mine." We also realize how terribly needy Kate is, how much she desperately wants to be loved, and how blind she is to seeing people as they really are. This would have been much more dramatic if Reyl had not used Kate as the narrator of her own story. Because of this, we have a hard time picturing Kate. However, maybe this is what Reyl wanted, since one of the first things Kate tells us is "In Paris, I am virtually transparent."
In sharp contrast to this, the descriptions of Paris are so precise and vivid, that one can easily envision each and every scene. This shows just how much Reyl loves Paris, and how well she knows it. It is also obvious that this story is one that is very personal to Reyl, but she also uses as a metaphor. Lydia's photography is described as having the genius quality of making the picture seem as if the scene portrayed is through the eyes of the subject. This is exactly how Reyl gives us Kate's Paris. Further, Kate learns that a photograph is more about the framing than it is the subject, so too is Paris the frame for Kate. All of which is done with very fluid prose and in a strong voice, for which Reyl must be praised.
But as amazing and ambitious as all this sounds, this book falls just a little short. On the one hand, Kate's naivety persists for far longer than it should, and this delays her personal growth to much later in the story. When the lights finally do come on for Kate, it seems to happen too suddenly, and we're left blinking after the shock of the flash. This sounds like another excellent photography metaphor, but unfortunately it is unsettling for the reader. It makes us wonder about the incongruous actions of some of the characters, despite their deceptive natures. It also frustrates the reader in wondering why Kate doesn't "get it" sooner - certainly a Yale graduate can't really be that dumb. Finally, that 'transparency' that Kate displays with such honor, also distances the reader from her, making her less sympathetic. With so many of characters being dislikable, and the few nice ones pushed to the background, the book has a slightly bitter aura to it. Even so, Reyl knows how to get her readers caught up in her settings, making Paris into a magical city we must discover.
Overall, Reyl is a talented writer, and perhaps she just needs a story that isn't so obviously personal in order to allow her to develop it fully. With all its drawbacks, the Paris of "Lessons in French" by Hilary Reyl makes this worth a read, and the novel deserves a solid three out of five stars.
* This review originally appeared on Curious Book Fans and later on Yahoo! Contributor Network
Published by Simon & Schuster, March 2013
With thanks to the publishers for the review copy sent via Curious Book Fans.