Lessons in French: A Novel

( 11 )

Overview


A sophisticated and page-turning debut novel about a young American woman’s coming-of-age in Paris.

It’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is about to come down, and Kate has just graduated from Yale. She is anxious to make her mark, yet has no idea how to pursue life as a fledging painter. So when she receives a surprising job offer to work as the assistant to Lydia Schell, a famous American photographer in Paris, she immediately accepts. It’s a chance not only to be at the center of it ...

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Lessons in French: A Novel

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Overview


A sophisticated and page-turning debut novel about a young American woman’s coming-of-age in Paris.

It’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is about to come down, and Kate has just graduated from Yale. She is anxious to make her mark, yet has no idea how to pursue life as a fledging painter. So when she receives a surprising job offer to work as the assistant to Lydia Schell, a famous American photographer in Paris, she immediately accepts. It’s a chance not only to be at the center of it all, but also to return to the city for the first time since she was a lonely nine-year-old girl sent to live with cousins while her father was dying of cancer.

Kate’s accent may be perfect, but she arrives at the Schell household in the fashionable Sixth Arrondissement both dazzled and wildly impressionable. She finds herself surrounded by a cast of characters, including the bright, pretentious Schells, Kate’s flamboyant cousin, a fellow Yalie who seems to have it all figured out, and a band of independently wealthy young men with royal lineage. And as she tries to fit into Lydia’s glamorous and complicated family, Kate forgets that she has one of her own.

Lessons in French is at once a love letter to Paris and the story of a young woman defining herself, and finding her moral compass, in the tall shadow of a powerful boss.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Paris is an irresistible backdrop and a proving ground in Hilary Reyl’s emotionally wise first novel. As Kate struggles to find who she truly is amid the ever-brewing storms in Schell household, her lessons are hard-won and often risky—and yet we believe and fully root for her from page one. An affecting and intelligently drawn debut.”

“Hilary Reyl has crafted the ultimate sophisticated coming-of-age-story. Not since Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce have Americans in Paris seemed so compelling. Lessons in French is not only an impossibly romantic and sensual delight, but its characters—witty and surprisingly poignant—stayed with me long after I savored the final page.”

“With its complicated love story, rich cast of accomplished and eccentric characters, and vivid evocation of late 1980’s Paris, Lessons in French is a delight from the first page. I got so caught up in the story, I almost believed I was young, living in a Parisian garret, and fluent in French.”

“French literature scholar Reyl’s first novel is rich and magnetic, a snapshot of one young woman’s life in a city at once ancient and bubbling over with life.”

"A bittersweet tale of personal growth and a paean (well deserved!) to Paris. Having lived there, Reyl should light up the City of Light."

"Any ambitious young woman who has ever been out of her depth in a new job, new city or new romance will recognize a bit of herself in Ms. Reyl's heroine."

Editor's Pick & 7 Dreamy Novels Set in the Most R Oprah.com
"An appealing debut novel . . . It's the portrait of Paris that entrances, from the cafe and chestnut croissants to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mix in a handsome love interest or two, and you've got a novel you can finish in the length of a plane ride."
Library Journal
An aspiring painter and newly minted Yalie, Kate is thrilled to be offered a job as assistant to famed photographer Lydia Schell—in Paris, no less, and in the fancy Sixth Arrondissement. A bittersweet coming of age follows. Having lived there, Reyl should light up the City of Light.
Kirkus Reviews
Debut author Reyl's coming-of-age novel about a young American artist who paints captivating scenes of life in The City of Light. It's 1989: A wave of revolution sweeps the Eastern Bloc countries, Salman Rushdie's inflammatory book, The Satanic Verses, is published, and Kate, a recent Yale graduate, arrives in Paris to work as an assistant for famed photojournalist Lydia Schell. Kate's an artist who's still seeking her direction, and she's excited about the opportunity she's been offered, even if, per her contract, she has to pay $400 of her $600 monthly salary to live in the tiny garret of the family's home. Kate's lived in France before as a child and speaks flawless French. When she was younger, she was sent to live with cousins after her father was diagnosed with cancer. He lost his battle two years later, and Kate's feelings of being cheated out of being with her father during his final days and her desire to do something that would make him proud are part of the baggage she carries. She's a naïve young woman who craves approval, and she wants very badly to fit in. But the self-absorbed, pretentious Schell family doesn't exactly welcome Kate as one of their own, and she's treated more like a servant than an assistant: walking the family dog and cleaning up urine; acting as a go-between for Lydia and her husband, Clarence, and for Clarence and a graduate student; acting as a companion to Portia, the daughter, who's been dumped by a man with whom Kate's secretly having a relationship. But in her naïve way, Kate rationalizes that she's learning a great deal from all these experiences, so she's willing to be the doormat that everyone uses but no one really notices--up to a point. With age and experience, Kate becomes more aware of who she is and what she wants, and ultimately, she grows into her own person. Un bon livre.
Oprah.com "Editor's Pick"
"An appealing debut."
Booklist
“French literature scholar Reyl’s first novel is rich and magnetic, a snapshot of one young woman’s life in a city at once ancient and bubbling over with life.”
author of The Paris Wife - Paula McLain
“Paris is an irresistible backdrop and a proving ground in Hilary Reyl’s emotionally wise first novel. As Kate struggles to find who she truly is amid the ever-brewing storms in Schell household, her lessons are hard-won and often risky—and yet we believe and fully root for her from page one. An affecting and intelligently drawn debut.”
author of Swimming and The German Bride - Joanna Hershon
“Hilary Reyl has crafted the ultimate sophisticated coming-of-age-story. Not since Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce have Americans in Paris seemed so compelling. Lessons in French is not only an impossibly romantic and sensual delight, but its characters—witty and surprisingly poignant—stayed with me long after I savored the final page.”
author of Insignificant Others - Stephen McCauley
“With its complicated love story, rich cast of accomplished and eccentric characters, and vivid evocation of late 1980’s Paris, Lessons in French is a delight from the first page. I got so caught up in the story, I almost believed I was young, living in a Parisian garret, and fluent in French.”
author of Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes - Elizabeth Bard
"Any ambitious young woman who has ever been out of her depth in a new job, new city or new romance will recognize a bit of herself in Ms. Reyl's heroine."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451655032
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 3/5/2013
  • Pages: 341
  • Sales rank: 791,121
  • Product dimensions: 5.84 (w) x 8.52 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author


Hilary Reyl has a Ph.D. in French literature from NYU with a focus on the nineteenth century and has spent several years working and studying in France. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 10, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Kate has the opportunity of a lifetime in her role as the assist

    Kate has the opportunity of a lifetime in her role as the assistant to a famous photographer. Not only will she be living with the Schell family, meeting their famous circle of friends, but she will have the opportunity to work on improving her art in a city that caters to untried artists around the globe. Hilary Reyl’s debut novel, Lessons in French, follows Kate as she adjusts to her new surroundings, meeting new friends, connecting with old ones, and discovering love and life in the quintessential city for doing just that.




    Kate is meant to be sympathetic – a young woman with parental issues looking to find herself in Paris. However, she comes across as particularly naïve, weak, and easily manipulated. Her deep-seated need to please everyone quickly evolves from endearing to annoying. Similarly, her inability to heed the advice of her friends is maddening. Someone with the strength and mental fortitude it takes to move to a different country and start a new live-in job with strangers should have more of a backbone than the one not exhibited by Kate. It is almost as if she feels it necessary to punish herself for some unknown, long-ago indiscretion, but the punishment lasts too long and does not fit whatever crime she believes she committed. The end result is a character whose mental turmoil irritates rather than creates sympathy, which is not necessarily optimal for a coming-of-age story.




    Living in Paris, or at least abroad, is a dream most people will never realize. The history, the architecture, the atmosphere – they all help Paris feel like the ideal locale to find oneself and learn about life. Yet, Ms. Reyl’s version of Paris is one that diminishes the mystique of this beloved city. The charming elements of the city have been tainted by the milieu into which Kate has been thrust. The Schells are horrible snobs, looking down on anyone who does not hold their same ideals and perfectly awful towards those who are no longer in their favor. Their liberal airs border on the maniacal, while their esoteric jokes about such things as Deconstructionism and sycophancy in journalism feel overdone and false. A reader is left wondering if people actually talk like the Schells and cannot help but feel disappointed that their influence diminishes the quirky aspects of the city.




    Even worse, the Schells are mere caricatures of the artists and upper class that flocked to Paris during the Gilded Age, clueless about the true issues of the day but convinced that they are making a difference and establishing a legacy. They live in their own sheltered world but feel that their work captures what life is like for those not in their social sphere. One could almost feel sympathy for Portia and Joshua, if one did not understand that they are active participants in their own misery, thoroughly enjoying being caught up in their parents’ drama. It is no little amount of irony that Joshua is the most sensible in his family but considered the most problematic family member. Their treatment of Kate is similarly clichéd, with Lydia filling in the role of the tyrannical boss a la The Devil Wears Prada, Clarence the well-meaning buffer who also exploits the help for his own gains, Portia’s own demands of Kate as her personal maid, and Joshua’s lack of demands. Readers automatically know the struggles Kate will face and the lessons she is going to learn, leaving very little in the way of surprise.




    Speaking of lessons learned, it is astonishing at just how little Kate does learn about herself and about others. While she understands that she is being manipulated by the entire Schell family, she never truly learns to stand up for herself. She lets others make decisions for her, and only until events unfold will she make a resolution and take a stand. Even her choice to leave Paris is not necessarily hers but rather forced upon her based on previous events. Kate is a bit too passive for such a novel.




    Ms. Reyl, for all her efforts, fails to break new ground or create a lasting character in her debut novel. Even though there have been many coming-of-age stories over the centuries, many have been done memorably well. Lessons in French is not one of them, as there is an overt lack of originality to the plot and to the characters that prevents it from standing apart from other similar stories. In addition, Kate’s distinct lack of boldness defeats the purpose of the entire story, as the main character in a coming-of-age novel should actually learn something about herself rather than follow in others’ wakes. Even the Parisian backdrop is lacking, as the focus of Kate’s Paris experiences revolves more around food and less about the other elements of the city. In other words, Lessons in French is a major disappointment.

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2013

    Thank you for this wonderful trip back to Paris c. 1989. If only

    Thank you for this wonderful trip back to Paris c. 1989. If only life were always so delicious and so witty! Hilary Reyl's debut novel is a delight from start to finish. A must-read for anyone who's ever yearned to be an expat intellectual--or just to walk down Rue St Honore eating a baguette!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2013

    I could not put this book down!  A lovely and entertaining read,

    I could not put this book down!  A lovely and entertaining read, rich with characters that will inspire you to book your tickets to Paris tout de suite!!  I highly recommend. 

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2013

    I have not read the book but bought it for my girlfriend..she ha

    I have not read the book but bought it for my girlfriend..she has not put it down since she started it so I assume it is pretty good as she's ignoring me although she has thanked me a few times.  I will definitely get another Reyl book as I am showing my sensitive side apparently.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2013

    A gorgeous escape to Paris! Reyl's sumptuous and transporting d


    A gorgeous escape to Paris! Reyl's sumptuous and transporting debut delivers a compassionate coming of age set against all the deliciousness of the City of Lights. J'adore ce livre! 

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2013

    Such a delightful read.  I was drawn into Katie's story form the

    Such a delightful read.  I was drawn into Katie's story form the first chapter and believed at the end that her lessons. and especially her Paris, were mine as well.  Reyl skillfully summons marvelous characters, big and small. As Katie's life in Paris, (and her predicament!), deepens, I came to relish each character's re-appearance, especially the imposing and irresistible, Lydia Schell, who looms over them all.  'Lessons' is the fluent work of an assured talent.  Highly recommended.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2013

    A coming of age -- American in Paris -- story that is equal part

    A coming of age -- American in Paris -- story that is equal parts charming, sharp, intuitive and devastating. Beyond all else, it's authentic, and it's Paris, and that's why I loved it the way I did. Kudos to Hilary Reyl for a truly triumphant debut.  

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 19, 2013

    Fabulous cover artwork! I know we should never "judge a boo

    Fabulous cover artwork! I know we should never "judge a book by its cover" - but- this jacket immediately captured my attention. The story is centered around Kate, a young American who goes to work for an eclectic photographer, Lydia Schell and boards with the Schell family in the 6th Arrondissement. From here, the story unfolds into several subplots. Lydia's husband is having an affair, the precocious daughter breaks up with her lover, only to have Kate begin seeing him, and the radical son causes household disruption.

    The book had an easy flow, was easy to follow, but lacked the luster I had anticipated. It failed to capture the sights, sounds and flavor of Paris. I didn't think it wrapped up the subplots nicely, chopped and disjointed, and really not in an interest for a follow-up/sequence novel.

    Hilary Reyl does show promise as a writer, it just was unfortunate this first novel fell a little short.

    It has been recommended for our bookclub reading, but not a "top recommendation"

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2013

    jmchshannon really nailed it. The protagonist is surprisingly &q

    jmchshannon really nailed it. The protagonist is surprisingly "naïve, weak, and easily manipulated. Her deep-seated need to please everyone quickly evolves from endearing to annoying. Similarly, her inability to heed the advice of her friends is maddening .' The plot is woefully thin. The antagonists,
    the Shells, are poisonous people that subjected sadistic torute on the protagonist.
    Nice reminders of Paris haunts, but that's not enough to justify a 308 page read.

    PJJ.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2013

    A fabulous, evocative rendition of Paris in the late 80s and a t

    A fabulous, evocative rendition of Paris in the late 80s and a touching and insightful tale of a young woman finding her voice. 

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2013

    I love this book!  I wish I were young and in Paris!

    I love this book!  I wish I were young and in Paris!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews

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