Title: French Lessons
Author: Ellen Sussman
Publisher: Canvas (UK)
Other Reviews for This Author: None
An adult contemporary take on three very unusual romances that takes a blunt and refreshing stance on the sexual nature of said romances? Sign me up. From the moment I read the description of French Lessons, I was on board with the story. So few adult contemporary novels take the time to show the difficulty found within the sexual parts of the romantic relationships. Some readers may have been disappointed with the amount of sex-talk in the book (and yes, there is quite a bit), but I'm not one to be turned away by a healthy dosage of reality. Sussman takes a very real look at sex in French Lessons, and in that regard she exceeds beautifully. The downside is that French Lessons takes a bit too much from its premise. The novel explores a single day in the lives of three different people in need of French lessons, and the period of enjoyment after finishing this book lasts about as long.
Paris. Three students. Three instructors. One day.
Learning French is an art. For many Americans-in-Paris, French lessons are a way to brush up on old language skills, acquire enough to stand day-to-day life in modern France, or explore a world that they have absolutely no knowledge of bit by bit. Nico, Philippe, and Chantal are the tutors of this language d'amour, this romantic catalyst that seems to inspire both the French and the expats that inhabit France for one reason or another. The three tutors meet on Wednesday mornings to discuss their daily tutoring sessions - and their tangled romances with each other. French may be considered the language of love in many countries, but that does not make love as simple as verb conjugations and speaking in multiple tenses. The tutors can teach their students how to speak the language, but teaching them how to approach love is a much more difficult endeavor, especially when they can't get it anymore than their students can.
Each student has their own reason for escaping into their French lessons. Josie is an American teacher that came to Paris expecting a romantic excursion with the love of her life, yet she comes into the country heartbroken and very, very alone. Jeremy's wife is a well-beloved actress that is filming her latest future-blockbuster hit in Paris. He, once again, is tagging along for the ride, feeling like the third wheel to her entourage and fame. Riley has been living in Paris for a while with her husband, yet she has not acclimated the way most expats do. Now a mother, Riley seems to be drifting farther and father into a self-contained sphere. Her husband and acquaintances are left behind.
Riley, Josie, and Jeremy all have French lessons with one of the tutors...and each set finds themselves exploring the meaning of life, love, and relationships with each other as they go through their lessons. The winding city streets of Paris are the perfect places for secret kisses and liaisons. Small houses and apartments barely large enough to hold one person hold two intertwining in a bed, kissing passionately and throwing their clothes to the ground. Marriages are broken, tested, and destroyed. Love is called into question at every moment. What is love? What is sex? Are the two the same - mutual - or totally separate? And how, in one day, can the scenes of Paris change them for good?
Ellen Sussman's contemporary adult novel is not the breezy exploration of love that that the UK cover implies, but it isn’t quite the sultry, erotic experience that the US cover implies, either. French Lessons is a hybrid of the romantic notions of literary adult fiction with a blunt look at sex, which, as many know, is not always represented well in non-romance genres. Sussman’s characters are the study of this piece: three tutors, three students, three liaisons that are so much more than simple tutoring sessions. Sussman sets her story against the bank of the river Seine; Paris alleyways; fountains and cafes with lovers sharing bits of pain au chocolat outside. The story opens and closes from the eyes of the tutors, giving a small idea of their internal struggles as the three tackle interpersonal struggles, sharing much more than teaching techniques with each other. The students, however, are the primary focus of the piece. Josie is the student that we see the most of – her past revolving around her teaching job in the States and her affair with a married man, the father of one of her students. Josie’s story is a twist on the teacher-student affair, choosing instead to make the taboo one of fidelity rather than age. By watching Josie’s past romance unfold in her portion of the narrative, we see her insecurities about love, the ways in which she came to believe that sex in hotel rooms away from her lover’s husband was making love. We see just how skewed her perception is of herself. Then we have Riley, an ex-pat who has become so embroiled in her emotional seclusion that she forgets how to live – that is, until she has one day with her French tutor as an attempt to learn some of what she’s been avoiding about the French culture for so long. Finally, we are shown Jeremy, a man who is in many ways abandoned by his wife as she lives out her life of fame in France while on a film shoot. They are in love, yet he can’t help but feel an urge to make some romantic time with his tutor, a woman of the highest French beauty, and consider what it would be like to have an affair.
These characters are, by nature, rich. There is something within each story that is real in a way that we don’t consider often in fiction. In each story, I found something that was worth reading in the character arc. Each shows a bit of growth – but mostly insight, as this is only one day in their lives – as to why they view romance and sex the way they do, why they are willing to have sex with someone in their rundown apartment, why they are willing to cheat on their spouses or be the cause of cheating, why they are willing to give up their bodies to feel like they are giving up their souls. Sussman shows a slice of life that isn’t entirely pretty. She challenges her readers with the idea that love is not something that we can put into a simple box of fidelity. She says to them that love is messy, and these characters certainly fit that theme to a key.
However, I think there’s something amiss with the characterization in this novel that stems in part from its set-up. We are introduced to six main characters and then embroiled in their life actions, seeing several more from each viewpoint. The self-contained aspect of each of the students’ narratives works well for keeping it from getting overwhelming. Sussman ties it together by ending each of the narratives at the same general scene, having each of them bear witness to the public filming of a sex scene with Jeremy’s wife en nude. Sussman’s eroticism with the characters is on the high, subtly flirting between being highly sexual and almost innocently sweet, yet they sometimes feel too limited. We only ever see them in one moment with their tutors as they reflect on their lives and go about their lives and their romances. The tutors never feel fleshed out the way that their students do, acting too much like vehicles for the plot rather than actual people that you care about. There’s also the fact that the characters do some morally gray and/or reprehensible things that will turn off some readers. Readers expecting a story similar to a genre romance will probably be disappointed in the amount of infidelity dealt with in this story,
There is something to be said for a book like French Lessons. It has had me bewildered in my attempts to grade it, to evaluate it. Initially, this book had little staying power with me and disappointed me in how it seemed to float away so quickly from my reading memory, yet I have come to find that more of this book is memorable than one would expect. Sussman’s characters are intriguing and show their relationships in erotic, conflicted delight. Her narrative speaks of Paris and its wonders. The execution and in-depth characterization leaves something to be desired, as the latter becomes a casualty of the former, but Sussman’s exploration with the narrative style is worth it in the end. This is not the book for people who want a genre romance, but nor is it for a reader expecting something light and free of sex. This is for the rare reader that wants a story of love and sex without the necessary happy ending, that would like to explore the uglier side of sex and its connection to love in a very lovely setting.
Cover: I love the UK cover. The US cover speaks of the sex more – and I wouldn’t mind that on the UK cover – but the UK cover looks stunning in print.
Rating: 4.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Canvas!)