11 July 2012
Book Review: French Lessons by Ellen Sussman
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.
You can buy French Lessons as a paperback or an eBook now.