French Lessons by Ellen Sussman
A single day in Paris changes the lives of three Americans as they each set off to explore the city with a different French tutor, learning about language, love, and loss as their lives intersect in surprising ways. Ellen Sussman’s novel French Lessons is a book for those who love movies like Love Actually and Valentine’s Day.
The three Americans traveling through their day are a diverse lot—there’s French teacher Josie with her secret sorrow, Riley, an unhappy expat who pines for home, and Hollywood husband Jeremy who has accompanied his film star wife to her Paris location and is now dealing with his stepdaughter, who’s acting out and with an unexpected attraction to the French teacher who’s been giving him lessons.
It’s the Americans who have the focus but it’s the French tutors who are learning their own lessons. The ménage that exists among Nico, Chantal and Philippe interests us and we’re by no means certain how it’s all going to turn out.
The characters are not uniformly likeable—we adore Nico but are lukewarm about Josie; we like Riley but know way too many guys like Philippe—but we enjoy being a tag-along on their ramble through Paris.
The characters are deftly drawn, even the minor characters who just have walk-on parts. When Nico tells Josie about the raucous girl Philippe flirted with, we see that girl so completely she casts a shadow. Riley’s little boy Cole, who seems to spend a lot of time patting his mother’s shoulder and telling her things will be okay, is a lovely kid.
Jeremy’s wife Dana—the movie star whose movie Nico comments does not “look as though it will last 100 years—has a strong presence too. We know a lot about her even though her character is mostly filtered through his point of view.
The writer is not just in love with her characters, she’s in love with Paris. In fact, we like the stories in Paris so much more than the flashbacks to characters’ lives before Paris that we find ourselves wanting to flip past those sections to get back to France.
We’re especially annoyed with Josie, who becomes consumed with her affair with Simon to the point that she’s alienating her best friend, her father and neglecting her students. (“You’ve been so distracted,” her boss notes when Josie calls in to quit her job. “Is something going on?”)
This is a character-driven story but the strength of the book is the dialogue. As our characters move about the city, they have adult conversations, serious talk about serious things and silly talk when it’s appropriate. We hardly ever hear adult conversations in the US any more and the pleasure of adult discourse has almost been lost. Of the characters, Nico and Riley have the most to say and it’s fitting that they are both talking about love and loss.
Loss is very much a part of the experience of what’s going on for the three Americans, loss that’s both literal and figurative. The dialogue anchors the story, which is otherwise so light it would simply float away without leaving an impact. This novel is very much in the vein of Nicholas Sparks’ books in that its simple story has the potential to touch some deep emotional chords.
If you can’t get to Paris this summer, take a mini-vacation with Sussman’s book. You’ll be transported.