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French Lessons: A Novel

French Lessons - Ellen Sussman
I would like to preface my review with this: I don't love books with gratuitous, descriptive sex scenes; it tends to lower the book's value in my estimation and they are intended for a different kind of audience than my profile. In all of the vignettes there are explicit, vivid sex scenes which seemed too over the top, and had something been left for the imagination I feel it would have been more appropriate, but the scenes were short so I paid little attention to them.

Reading this book is a pleasant way to pass time. It revolves around three French tutors. You must keep in mind the thread that connects the three: Chantal is in love with Philippe who is in love with himself, and Nico is in love with Chantal. Will the book leave with you with insights about the world, will it make you introspective about yourself, hmmm, maybe a little bit, but only if you choose to dwell on the philosophical subjects the book awakens. It could be a great book to discuss with a face to face book group if someone would want to spend the time pulling out all of the conflicting moral and ethical dilemmas the characters faced. Summing up my feelings about the book, it would be a pleasant way to spend some time without taxing the brain unless you had the inclination to think more deeply about the characters' behavior. At some point, we can all identify with at least one of the problems each of the characters experienced. Is everyone lonely? How do we deal with the illness of a parent? Are all women starved for sex or some kind of exciting affair of the heart? Are all men only too eager to oblige? Does morality or ethics ever play a role in our decisions? Do promises have to be kept? Other more serious issues are casually brought up, as well. How do we deal with the death of a loved one, a parent or a secret heartthrob? Is everyone searching for passion? How do we deal with infidelity? Have we become so jaded or lazy that marriage vows are now insignificant? Does self satisfaction rule? Would we all rather live in the moment if we could get away with it? Would we have made any of the decisions made by the characters in the book? All of the characters are running from something. All of them are playing a role in Paris and the character who is the common thread is an actress who appears in each segment. Was this by the design of the author or accidental? Each of the characters is acting a part on their own stage, never showing their true selves until a moment of truth occurs. Those are the thoughts the book aroused in me when i turned the final page.

The book illuminates the lives of a lot of people who had so much to be thankful for and yet chose to think of what they were missing and thought their lives were empty or emptying slowly, people who often made foolish, impetuous decisions. Each is searching for something when they are in Paris, on the same day, and they each end up in the same place on a bridge overlooking the filming of a movie. As their lives intersect, unbeknownst to each other, do any of them find solutions to their problems or are all of these exercises in escapism simply futile? They all seem so conflicted, empty, unfulfilled and lonely. Another question to consider while reading is why are so many people today feeling so lost? The women in the story seemed love or sex starved and most of the men seemed selfish and only too happy to oblige their instincts, in most cases. Is there some sort of women’s agenda hidden in the pages of this book?

Each story had a very tragic element and yet it did not leave you with tragic feelings because it was written with a really fine humorous touch, and although everyone started out totally insecure, they managed to somehow come to terms with their demons in the end.


Josie's trip to Paris with her married lover (for whom she can not openly mourn because of the very nature of the affair), will never occur. He has died in a plane crash. She decides to travel there alone and arranges to have a french tutor, for the day, basically just for company. When they meet, they share their most hidden, intimate secrets with each other. Nico, a tutor by day and a poet at all other times (just recently published), is a congenial companion with a huge secret in his past. He helps her unburden her soul and she does the same for him. They share their dreams and disappointments. I love their dialogue. He draws her out and she puts him at ease. They are compatible and their back and forth banter makes what would otherwise be a tragic love story, less so, and the humorous remarks and easy going personality of Nico as he takes Josie through her day, make the first story a good read. Perhaps they heal each other as they clarify their inner fears and painful emotions but do they learn anything from this catharsis or do they repeat the same mistakes? That remains to be seen.

The second story is about Riley and Philippe, a French tutor who fancies himself a ladies man and who is a rather raunchy individual. Riley has been transplanted to Paris, from the United States, because of her husband’s job. While there, she has another child. Anyone who is, or has been, a stay-at-home mom, (few and far between today) will identify with her feelings of isolation, with no one to talk to other than children, with a husband who works long hours and is not home for meals or inclined to have small conversations with her when he comes home exhausted. Their married life has been reduced to little more than two people sharing rooms with two children. They each live separately and apart from each other in the same space. Her situation is made worse by the obvious language barrier so she has engaged, Philippe, a French tutor. At the same time as Riley feels her loneliness so vividly, she discovers her mom has ovarian cancer. Her mom is one tough lady and she believes Riley is too and that she should try and resurrect the passion that once lived within the confines of her marriage. One afternoon, Riley arranges to meet her tutor at a café, instead of at home. What ensues is a passionate afternoon of lovemaking. Riley faces her demons through her encounter with this tutor whose rugged handsomeness and devil-may-care attitude thrill her.

In the third story we follow the characters Jeremy and Chantal. Jeremy's wife, Dana, has arranged to have a French tutor for him while she is filming in Paris. She is a famous actress. Chantal is the French tutor; she believes she is in love with the tutor Philippe. Dana is the thread that reappears in each segment. Each vignette ends with the filming of her scene on the bridge which elicits revelations in the main characters and points them in a specific direction in their lives. In this segment, we view the scene not only through the eyes of Chantal and Jeremy, but through the eyes of his step-daughter and Dana, as well.

All three stories near their conclusion as they overlooking the filming of a rather raunchy scene, a naked woman on a mattress on a bridge. She is obviously the mistress of the naked man circling the bed who is being watched by someone who appears distraught and is probably the wife. The scene is followed by a thunderous downpour, a storm, which may or may not be indicative of turmoil in each of the character’s lives and the catharsis the French tutors enabled in each of them.Each of the stories has the theme of infidelity or unrequited love and this third piece kind of pulls them all together since it points out every aspect the book as included, older man, younger woman, married man, single woman, man who can't commit, serious woman looking for her fairy tale life. In all, but the last, the women are lusting after the men. In the last, Jeremy thinks of it but doesn't fulfill his thoughts of cheating.

In the fourth and final segment, the three tutors are supposed to get together, once again, at their meeting place, a cafe. The ending ending was kind of like a fairy tale. You are left wondering a bit, though, about which way the romance between Nico and Chantal will go. All three tutors influence the lives of their students in unintended ways.