Lessons In French by Hilary Reyl

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Lessons In French by Hilary Reyl

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: Paris in 1989 is an interesting place for a young American graduate, but her boss is going to see to it that she has as little freetime for fun as possible.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: May 2013
Publisher: Harper
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0007446261

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American graduate Kate leaves the States for a job in Paris, working for a The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger style boss, world famous photo-journalist Lydia Schell. She’s lived in France before, so she thinks she knows what she’s letting herself in for. She doesn’t. So while the title doesn't refer to the language itself (she is beautifully fluent even before she arrives), there are many lessons for her to learn, from how to act as a go-between for Lydia and her husband Clarence (and his graduate students), to how to handle the handsome Olivier and the bon chic bon genre boys, to where to source the lavish ingredients her employer needs for dinner or how to make a proper timeline. The Berlin Wall is about to fall, the continent is buzzing, and Kate is a part of it, for better or worse.

I began reading this book while in Paris, and it was a lovely way to start as the descriptions were so vivid that I could live the city through the pages, and then step outside and live it again. Kate is an interesting heroine because she’s an Ivy League grad who speaks fluent French, thanks to her previous stint in the country, so this isn’t your typical tale of an American abroad. French phrases are scattered throughout the text. It’s not a language I excel at, but even when I didn’t know exactly how something would translate, I got the gist, and for me it was an important way to keep my mind focussed on Paris. Kate, however, didn’t quite seem excited enough about her new life in the city. She spends a lot of time analysing what other people are doing and saying, rather than doing and saying things herself, and it almost feels like she’s living other people’s lives rather than carving out one of her own. The job is demanding, and her memories of her family from years before are not always happy, but still, while her uni friends are probably doing boring entry level jobs back home, she’s living in Paris! She could be a bit happier about it.

Lessons In French is truly two books in one. There's the story promised by the blurb on the back and the artwork on the cover (a huge change from the hardback edition) and but then you get the story that actually features between the pages. The two could not be more different, and I think this was one of the reasons it took me a while to get into this book, because I kept expecting it to morph into something else.

This is not chicklit, and if you’re expecting this (understandable, from the cover) you will be disappointed. While the story has evil bosses and romantic comedies and misunderstandings and a lot of the other ingredients, they add up to a different reading experience because the prose is serious and wordy, and the author prefers the 'why use one line when you can use half a page' approach to narration. The result is something I’ll describe as unusual rather than odd, a story that almost doesn’t know what it is (or why it’s being written now, rather than contemporaneously). I didn’t know the city in the late 80s, so I struggled to pick up on anchors that kept the story in that time rather than the present day, and yet I did enjoy it. It was refreshing to have an American take on Paris that is different from the Hollywood standard, whereby every hotel room in the city has a view of the Eiffel Tower, and the natives cycle around wearing stripy t-shirts and berets, and holding baguettes (I can officially report that bikes are now out, and scooters are, disturbingly in. The baguette cliché still happily holds true though).

This is a more serious, more intelligent, more thought-provoking book than it initially appears. If you approach it with an open mind, it’s there to be enjoyed, because it has a lot going for it, but in true French style, be prepared to wait around because it’s slow and lazy in the beginning, and takes a while to get going.

Thanks go to the publishers for supplying this book.

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan is fluffy, Paris by Edward Rutherfurd is focussed. Take your pick for more Paris themed musings.

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Buy Lessons In French by Hilary Reyl at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lessons In French by Hilary Reyl at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Lessons In French by Hilary Reyl at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lessons In French by Hilary Reyl at Amazon.com.


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