Reviewed by Lauren Kirk
There is something lovely about novels that take the reader to a desirable location through a practical, yet romantic lens. French Lessons by Ellen Sussman is an endearing story that takes the reader deep into Paris through the eyes of both residents and visitors. The novel follows three French tutors and their very different students as they endure a different side of the city while discovering a side of themselves they didn’t know existed or one they simply didn’t want to face. As both the tutors and students deal with their daily lives and their shortcomings, so does the reader. Ellen Sussman does a fantastic job of creating a brilliant visual picture that puts you right on the streets and in the cafes alongside the characters.
French Lessons begins with a meeting between the tutors, Nico, Chantelle, and Philippe, that explains their back story and outlines their exact purpose in the story. The three are intertwined, which is an interesting story in itself, but it does not become the main plot, even though a story could essentially be written only on this dynamic. All three briefly discuss their impending tutoring sessions for the day and then separate. It seems as if it is any other day but that is not the case for any of them.
The tutors are paired with individual students of varying backgrounds and personal situations and they are bound to walk away from their lessons of that day a bit changed. The most compelling of the stories belongs to Nico and his heartbroken American student. Again, a novel could have been easily written on this tale alone. Sussman hits on poignant situations such as family, love, lust, and loss that just about anyone can relate to. In giving each tutor their own section, Sussman creates a divide in the tale that breaks it up perfectly. This is particularly admirable because the entire novel basically takes place in one day.
French Lessons tackles the intimate and often icky situations that few people like to discuss. The three students tutored by Nico, Chantelle, and Philippe all regain their emotional footing after their lessons and the tutors learn a bit about themselves in the process. Sussman’s descriptions are not overbearing, the emotions are poignant, and all of the situations the characters endure – even though some are a bit extreme – are completely relatable. It is easy to put yourself in any one of the characters’ shoes and lives.
Lauren Kirk is a graduate student, freelance writer, wine lover, and avid reader. Random musings can be found over at www.goldiesays.com.
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