Friday, September 2, 2011

French Lessons by Ellen Sussman (REVIEW)

J'adore Paris! Get lost in Paris with FRENCH LESSONS, but don't expect to connect with the characters or their plights as they navigate the City of Lights.

French Lessons by Ellen Sussman

Published July 12, 2011 by Ballantine

256 Pages

A single day in Paris changes the lives of three Americans as they each set off to explore the city with a French tutor, learning about language, love, and loss as their lives intersect in surprising ways.

Josie, Riley, and Jeremy have come to the City of Light for different reasons: Josie, a young high school teacher, arrives in hopes of healing a broken heart. Riley, a spirited but lonely expat housewife, struggles to feel connected to her husband and her new country. And Jeremy, the reserved husband of a renowned actress, is accompanying his wife on a film shoot, yet he feels distant from her world.

As they meet with their tutors—Josie with Nico, a sensitive poet; Riley with Phillippe, a shameless flirt; and Jeremy with the consummately beautiful Chantal—each succumbs to unexpected passion and unpredictable adventures. Yet as they traverse Paris’s grand boulevards and intimate, winding streets, they uncover surprising secrets about one another—and come to understand long-buried truths about themselves.

I was lucky to receive an ARC of FRENCH LESSONS from a Goodreads contest, and being the sucker that I am for chick lit and France, I was eager to read it. I finally found myself picking it up and jumping in, and the first thing I noticed was the writing style – third person, present tense, and a distinct leaning towards the poetic and literary. The immediate problem – this style of writing immediately seems more forced than effortless. In my experience, this literary lilt is much harder to pull off than your normal, everyday prose, and I feel that Sussman didn’t pull it off like I hoped she would.

The story follows three French tutors and their American clients over the course of a day in Paris, further linked by the filming of a movie on the Pont des Arts in Paris. The story is told mostly in the form of three linked vignettes connected with two short before and after scenes amongst the tutors Nico, Chantal, and Philippe. Their clients are Americans Josie, Riley, and Jeremy, in Paris for various reasons, but all suffering from relationship issues, person problems, identity crises, etc. Having visited Paris in January (for 12 hours on a day trip from London) and having taken two years of French in high school, I wanted to love this book. Instead, I only kinda sorta liked it.

Why, you ask? I felt no connection with the characters. Any of them. They all seemed like two dimensional characters that I couldn’t see as real. I didn’t feel them or believe in them. And, being so short, the story didn’t really give us any closure for many of the characters, and happy endings were in short supply.

Sussman has a tendency to use French language to convey things to other characters, except one teensy weensy problem… The characters understand, but the reader who hasn’t had a French class since 2002? Ehm… I had Google translate open on my computer ready and waiting and I was still confused.

But something about this book kept me intrigued and I finished it relatively quickly considering I was reading other stuff at the same time. It was interesting, the imagery of Paris stunning and alluring, but I couldn’t connect with the characters and their stories. I was more invested in discovering more about the City of Lights than the people inhabiting it. I think Sussman might have missed the boat a little on this, but she still delivers an interesting, light summer read that mixes literary fiction with a beachy flair that makes this ideal for the pool.

VERDICT: With characters that aren’t easy to connect to but a fascinating story to set the scene, FRENCH LESSONS doesn’t quite achieve what it sets out to, but for a beach read, it’s fairly good.


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