Lessons in French: A Novel

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9781451655032: Lessons in French: A Novel

A sophisticated and page-turning debut novel about a young American woman’s coming-of-age in Paris.

It’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is coming down, and Kate has just graduated from Yale, eager to pursue her dreams as a fledgling painter. When she receives a job offer to work as the assistant to Lydia Schell, a famous American photographer in Paris, she immediately accepts. It’s a chance not only to be at the center of it all, but also to return to France for the first time since she was a lonely nine-year-old girl, sent to the outskirts of Paris to live with cousins while her father was dying.

Kate may speak fluent French, but she arrives at the Schell household in the fashionable Sixth Arrondissement both dazzled and wildly impressionable. She finds herself surrounded by a seductive cast of characters, including the bright, pretentious Schells, with whom she boards, and their assortment of famous friends; Kate’s own flamboyant cousin; a fellow Yalie who seems to have it all figured out; and a bande of independently wealthy young men with royal lineage. As Kate rediscovers Paris and her roots there, while trying to fit into Lydia’s glamorous and complicated family, she begins to question the kindness of the people to whom she is so drawn as well as her own motives for wanting them to love her.

In compelling and sympathetic prose, Hilary Reyl perfectly captures this portrait of a precocious, ambitious young woman struggling to define herself in a vibrant world that spirals out of her control. Lessons in French is at once a love letter to Paris and the story of a young woman finding herself, her moral compass, and, finally, her true family.

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Review:

Guest Review of “Lesson in French”

By Paula McLain

Can you ever have enough Paris? Obviously not, and though Hilary Reyl’s engaging Lessons in French is set in 1989, nearly seventy years after Ernest and Hadley Hemingway caroused with their Bohemian set, Reyl’s layered, sumptuous and spot-on details had me ready to buy a ticket to her Paris from page one.

In many ways, Kate is any young woman trying to figure out who she is amid the push and pull of others, but her new assistantship with the wildly glamorous and neurotic photographer, Lydia Schell, adds considerable torque in both directions. So does Lydia’s impossibly dysfunctional family.

Granted, the trappings are delicious—a chambre de bonne in the chic sixth arrondissement, promised elbow rubbing with Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, and the satisfaction of being indispensable to Lydia and her loved ones. The reality is so much more draining and dicey. Nearly all of her pittance of a salary pays her rent, and Lydia expects not just the work Katie was hired to do, but dog walking, schlepping out for spring rolls and strange diet pills—oh, and blind gratitude and unquestioning loyalty to boot. But Lydia’s a genius, right, doing socially important work? And who is Katie to stand up to her?

Who is Katie becomes the question of the book, and the thing that keeps us turning pages. Her principal gift, she tells us early on, is to reflect others back beautifully, and we see that emotional mirroring over and over in her. In trying to please everyone, to be endlessly diplomatic and necessary and reliable, Kate gets blurrier and more disoriented. In completing others, she loses herself—and what will that malleability cost her, in the end?

I found Kate absolutely believable and familiar as a character (I know that girl, haven’t we all been that girl?) and that—coupled with the sublime setting—was a winning combination for me. Paris isn’t mere seasoning in this debut novel, but a seven-course meal.

Like her heroine, Hilary Reyl spent considerable time in the City of Light, and one has the feeling that the book is a labor of love for the author, a way of paying homage to what she herself gained and lost in Paris, and to immortalize that experience in story. This is a wonderful first novel. Savor it with crème-filled croissants and peach kir, and prepare to be transported.

About the Author:

Hilary Reyl has a PhD in French literature from NYU with a focus on the nineteenth century and has spent several years working and studying in France. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.

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