Three French tutors meet with pupils one day in Paris, and the lessons and experiences they share — some isolating; some intimate — come to define them in unexpected ways.
Ellen Sussman’s French Lessons was . . . fine. Have you ever felt that way about a book? Neutral, vanilla, “meh.” I read it quickly and enjoyed it well enough at the time, but I’ve delayed writing this review. Two weeks later and I’m sitting here with my head cocked to one side, finding myself with little to say about it.
Sussman’s writing is lyrical, but I got to know her characters in such a limited, superficial way that no one person has stuck with me. Weeks after finishing, I had to physically open the book to remember anyone’s name. That doesn’t bode well. I tweeted a few weeks back that I never thought a book about sex — and make no mistake: this one oozes with trysts, sensuality and attraction — could be so dull.
Nico was probably my favorite character, but only because he was the one person I got to know. His love for Chantal, a fellow Parisian and tutor, was touching at times — and I did like the book’s conclusion. But everyone else was either selfish and dull or ridiculous and campy. I hated and felt no empathy for Josie, a grief-stricken teacher dealing with the death of her married (and not to her, natch) lover. If anything, I only felt sharp twinges of anger toward her.
But those were fleeting. I waited for French Lessons to make me feel something, especially since I’m caught up in a tailwind of obsession with Paris at the moment. (By the way, I think I’ve narrowed my big trip down to France. Hence why I eagerly plucked a copy of this one from my bookshelves.) But in the end, all I felt was a listless desire for this book to be over.
The book’s one strength is the gorgeous portrayal of Paris, a character unto itself. I could feel the breeze ruffling my hair from atop the Eiffel Tower and taste the warm goodness of a croissant while seated at a French cafe. In Sussman’s hands, the city becomes the glittering and glamorous array I imagine it to be. It’s the characters — the human characters — that leave much to be desired.
I did finish French Lessons, though. And I have no problem tossing books aside, so I give it points for that. But unless you’re a diehard francophile, I would probably head for more alluring pastures.
2.5 out of 5!