The Pleasing Hour

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The first novel from a new literary voice brimming with sensitivity and lyricism, The Pleasing Hour is the story of an American in Europe whose coming-of-age defies all our usual conceptions of naivete and experience. Fleeing a devastating loss, Rosie takes a job as an au pair with a Parisian family and soon finds the comfort and intimacy she longs for with their children and the father, Marc. Only Nicole, the children's distant, impeccably polished mother, is unwilling to embrace the young American. But when ...

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The Pleasing Hour

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The first novel from a new literary voice brimming with sensitivity and lyricism, The Pleasing Hour is the story of an American in Europe whose coming-of-age defies all our usual conceptions of naivete and experience. Fleeing a devastating loss, Rosie takes a job as an au pair with a Parisian family and soon finds the comfort and intimacy she longs for with their children and the father, Marc. Only Nicole, the children's distant, impeccably polished mother, is unwilling to embrace the young American. But when Rosie realizes that her attachments have become transgressions, she leaves for the south of France. There she learns about Nicole's own haunted past and the losses that link the two women more closely than either could have imagined.

Winner of Barnes & Noble's 1999 Discover Great New Writers Award

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Lisa Shea Elle [An] impressive debut from a writer who knows how to uncover the saving impulses of the heart.

Lelia Ruckenstein The Washington Post Delightful...This remarkably well-written book will please you with its funny and sad tale of cultural differences, love, betrayal, and motherhood....Introduces a very talented writer of great promise.

Karen Shepard USA Today Beautifully wrought...what people do to each other and the legacies they leave are King's central subjects, and in her deft hands they're explored in complicated, ambitious ways that leave us feeling as if we've become fluent in a foreign language.

Heller McAlpin Newsday Well written, absorbing....She is an accomplished stylist, repeatedly demonstrating a fine control of her complicated structure, which zigzags in time....An altogether pleasing debut.

Publishers Weekly Expertly constructed, full of surprises, superbly paced, and sweetly sad, King's book hardly reads like a first novel.

Booklist With longing and sweetness, this subtle and gorgeously crafted novel takes us into a tangle of family affections...the play of French against American, of fresh hurts against old but still aching ones, of lovers and mothers, is gently woven in language of great purity.

Kirkus Reviews Intriguing...the central character's complexity and many of the descriptive details are pleasing.

Tim Lemire Tab (Boston) A literary first novel of impressive layering and complexity, the kind of debut you might expect from the winner of the Raymond Carver Prize for fiction.

Phillip Lopate Author of Portrait of My Body This is a deft and moving novel, with grace notes and shocks of recognition on every page. Elegant, sensual, and, above all, aware, it offers a stunningly dramatic presentation of ambivalences and reconciliations. You feel wisdom in these sentences, and care for the truth.

Roxana Robinson Author of This Is My Daughter and Summer Light This is a lovely book, elegant and wise, full of illuminations about France, and families, and love.

Jacqueline Carey
...splendid...Most writers are good at depicting either intricate social ambiguities or more primitive urges. King proves herself equally adept at both—even as she skillfully demonstrates that the two never exist comfortably side by side.
NY Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A year in France brings a young American new reserves of sympathy and maturity in this poised, accomplished first novel. Nineteen-year-old Rosie, King's sensitive narrator, arrives in Paris on the first day of the school year, set for her job as the Tivot family's au pair. The other au pairs in French usage, filles are cosmopolitan students drawn to French culture. Rosie, however, has come here to flee her past: she became pregnant as a deliberate act of charity, giving up her baby so her infertile sister could have a child. But that decision has only heightened her omnipresent sense of loss. Her months with the Tivot family on their houseboat bring her new and difficult human connections: to the inquisitive, needy 12-year-old Lola and her younger brother, Guillaume; to their unhappy, astringent mother, Nicole; and to their father, Marc, with whom the reserved Rosie gradually falls in love. After Lola catches Rosie and Marc holding hands on a family trip to Spain, Rosie is sent to a small town in Provence to care for Nicole's Aunt Lucie, in her 90s. In chapters interspersed with Rosie's own story, Aunt Lucie fills in the background of Nicole's family, a grim account of inheritance and treachery during WWII. Expertly constructed, full of surprises, superbly paced and sweetly sad, King's book hardly reads like a first novel; her skilled observation and careful narrative voice prevent the wartime plot from seeming sensational, and keeps Rosie's saga of melodrama. In fact, the seamless integration of theme, plot and voice produces a rare sense of intimacy. Rosie's final discoveries about France, about families and about herself through Lucie, Lola and Nicole take her on an inward journey readers will feel privileged to share. Sept. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
YA-Only gradually do readers learn why Rosie, an 18-year-old American, has been caring for the three Tivot children on their family houseboat. Raised by an older sister now happily married but infertile, Rosie became a surrogate mother for Sarah. Only after giving birth did she realize what she was renouncing and, in heartbreak, fled to France. The book opens with the teen in rural southern France, her stint as an au pair behind her. She is companioning an elderly family friend of the Tivots, and she acquaints Rosie with their background. These weeks in the countryside with the nurturing woman provide the girl with a more mature view of her experience. Resentment, self-consciousness, and confusion give way to acceptance and understanding of her relationships with this family. The story then flashes back to Rosie's first day on the houseboat. She is aware at once that the cool sophisticated mother, Nicole, is disappointed with her. Odile, more nearly Rosie's age, is inclined to her mother's aloofness. Lola, the middle child, offers immediate affection and the younger boy is accepting as well. Beautifully written, with complex characterizations, the book creates the ambience of France in both city and country scenes. King is particularly successful in revealing Rosie's past and present insecurities. Of special value to teens is the examination of the young woman's strengths-her loving nature, her willingness to sacrifice, and her ability to assess her choices and move on with her life.-Frances Reiher, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An intriguing but fractured debut about a downhearted American au pair's year in France: it's intended as a retreat from pain but instead brings her awareness of the painful burdens others must bear, and for far longer than she has carried hers. Coming to Paris to live on a houseboat was like stepping into a dream for 17-year-old Rosie, even though Nicole, the mother of her family, was a daunting, cold beauty and Rosie's French was pitifully poor. No matter. The business of shopping, preparing meals, and caring for the three well-behaved children of Nicole and Marc kept her from brooding over what she left behind in New Hampshire: a newborn, her own child, a baby she'd contrived to conceive in order to give to her infertile sister and her husband, only to have a change of heart after the boy was born. As months pass and her involvement with her host family grows, Rosie ponders the dynamic between Nicole and Marc, a successful but less glamorous doctor who seems to have little in common with his wife. An Easter holiday in Spain loosens everyone up, but for Marc that means increasing his appreciation of Rosie, and they find too much time to be alone. Discovered holding hands by the youngest child, Rosie tries to bury her feelings for Marc and make amends by offering to care for Nicole's dying aunt, who lives in the southern village Nicole left in her youth and never returned to. Rosie flourishes in her new surroundings while learning the sad story of Nicole's family, and when Nicole decides to pay a visit finally to her birthplace, to lay to rest the ghosts of her past, it is Rosie she chooses to accompany her. The central character's complexity and many of the descriptivedetails are pleasing, but the plotting here has more artifice than artfulness, one consequence being that the children are fleshed out in the beginning only to be cut loose in the end.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743201643
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1 SCRIBNER
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 778,629
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Lily King

Lily King studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Syracuse University, where she won the Raymond Carver Prize for fiction. A MacDowell Colony fellow, her stories have appeared in Ploughshares and Glimmer Train. She lives with her husband and daughter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Plaire

Plaire is not a wealthy town. It is not one of those immaculate, romantic villages described in books about the south of France. Its streets are not made of cobblestones or clogged with visitors in the hot months. It does not have red cliffs, or châteaux, or the carapace of a fortress. The churches are unremarkable, the café terraces viewless. In the afternoon the narrow streets grow sinister, blackened by enormous shadows with clawed edges that slowly scale the pitted stucco walls. Half-dead ivy creeps down to meet them. Even at two o'clock on a bright spring day, you can turn down one of those streets and all light and heat will be gone. You will have to wait until your eyes have adjusted to move on. Through the slats of closed green shutters above, you can hear music or the sound of water in a basin or heavy plates being stacked or unstacked. The grocery bags will start to cut into your fingers, and the two miles back will seem, from that dark street, unachievable. But once you reach the valley, and Lucie Quenelle's farmhouse appears on the next rise, there seem to be seven suns stretching across the sky, each one celebrating your return.

She is waiting for me in the garden. I can see her straw hat twitching as she swats at something. At the sound of my sandals through the grass, a smile appears just below the hat's brim. It does not feel like penitence to be here with this old woman, though I know it should.

Once she sets me to work on the table grapes with her, it doesn't take her long to start in with more questions. She has so many, mostly about Nicole.

"She was very careful as a child, deliberate. Is she still?"

"Yes." I try to be curt, entirely uninterested.

"And so equable."


"Perhaps you are too young to know exactly what I mean."

"Perhaps," I say, feeling too old to argue.

She's teaching me how to rewire the trunks of the vines to their posts. Beside her quick spotted hands, mine work clumsily.

"Would you say she's happy, Nicole? Would you say she married the right man?"

"I don't know." But she wants more. She will not stop until she's wrung me dry.
"He's not a man I would have married," I add.

"Why not?"

I can't think of one word to throw her off.

"It's hard to pinpoint, isn't it?" she says, furrowing her entire face. "But there's something about this Marc Tivot. A man should never make you feel old."

"She looks half her age," I say, deliberately misunderstanding, veering away. "She's in good shape. She's healthy, nimble — "

"Nimble! Where did you learn a word like nimble? Sometimes you surprise me with the words you know. How is it that you can have such an extensive vocabulary but absolutely no memory for the definite articles?"

"I don't know. It's just a block I have," I say, embarrassed my errors have been noticed already.

Nicole's daughter, Lola, always insisted it was obvious. Look, she said, running to the table she had just set, a knife is masculine and a spoon is feminine. Look at them. You can just tell. Look at this plate. It's a girl's face. And this glass, it's a man. Can't you see it? Lola had bangs and a birthmark on her ring finger and pronounced my name, Rosie, with the best unrolled r in the family.

"Here. Not so tight. Please," she says with sudden impatience. "You're strangling the poor thing. And look down here. His roots are being pulled up."

"Sorry." I let go the vine.

"I love this earth." She squeezes a fistful and, when she releases it, it keeps the hollows of her fingers and the sharp peaks between them. I feel her smiling, waiting for me to look up. But I can't receive her at times: her pale eyes, her pressed white collar and the triangle of scaled skin it reveals, her nimble hands working the earth. Leste. All my words lead back to that family.

Marc called me nimble during my first week in Paris when I caught the glass at dinner. Their son had knocked it hard off the edge, reaching for the lemon syrup, and I caught it, a full glass of water falling from the table. Marc called me leste and the whole family looked at me, everyone but Nicole, like I might work miracles.

"Look at you. You're freezing," she says, leaving a hand on my bare leg. "The body is so beautiful when it's young. Enjoy it, Rosie."

But I can't feel anything — not her withered hand or the earth she loves or the suns that are still blazing above us — and I know if there's one thing I ache to abandon it is my body.

"You are eighteen, nineteen?"


"What on earth could make a child of nineteen so..." She studies me for a word that thankfully never comes. "When I was nineteen," she continues, "we moved here, to Plaire. Nicole's family lived right tip there, through those trees, which in those days weren't so high. You could see their house, from here, and the sun, as it fell below those mountains. But everything's higher now. Or maybe I've shrunk. I don't know what's different today about the sun and the air, but then the sky would go purple sometimes — not purple, exactly, but mauve. That's what Nicole's mother called it."

"You knew her mother?" It is an odd image, Nicole as a child.

"She was seventeen years younger than me, but she ended up being the closest friend I ever had. She told me that when she was a little girl she'd sit on her grandfather's porch in Roussillon and have tea and cakes during the mauve hour. I never hear the word mauve without thinking of her, but the light's changed since then. Anyway, I think it's probably time."


"But we've done quite a lot today. Thank you."

She is giving me room, board, and two hundred francs a week, but she has thanked me every evening of the three weeks that I've been here.

We put the tools and the wire back in the broken basket and follow the path through the roses to the back door. She takes my arm on the steps for balance. "Ah," she says. "Can't you smell the stew? You were right to put in that extra basil." She gives my arm a good tug as if she might be falling, then casts off from me altogether as we enter the house.

After dinner I will write my sister a one-sentence postcard with no return address: Walked the path van Gogh walked with his bloody ear. It's a lie — a place Lucie Quenelle has told me about farther south.

In the New Hampshire house with the red door — and the gold slot into which these cards are dropped — live my sister, her husband, and the baby I gave them. All I can hope is when that child has words he will tell them the things I cannot. Perhaps my whole life here in France will spill out of his mouth.

Copyright © 1999 by Lily King

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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

The Pleasing Hour

Discussion Points

1. Discuss the moral implications of Rosie's sister, Sarah, accepting the "gift" of Rosie's child. Which sister is more naive to think that the adoption will be easy? Why does Rosie choose to become an au pair after being deprived of mothering her own son? Is it painful for her to care for someone else's children? Or, is it a necessary outlet for her flood of maternal instincts? Some would argue that Rosie herself is still a child despite having given birth. When does Rosie seem the most childlike and vulnerable? In what ways or in what situations does she seem older than her years?

2. In what ways does the language barrier heighten Rosie's perceptions and make her more instinctual toward her host family in Paris? How does it affect her initial reactions to Nicole, Marc, and the Tivot children? What clues does Rosie rely upon when she fails to grasp the family's French? Recall Rosie's feelings of confidence and superiority when she easily adjusts to Spanish and serves as translator during the family's trip to Spain. Discuss the complex relationship between language and power throughout the book.

3. Discuss the nuanced portraits the author draws of Odile, Lola, and Guillaume Tivot. How does she explore the disparate experiences siblings can have growing up in the same family? What accounts for the children's vastly different temperaments and degrees of allegiance with Nicole and Marc? How does the author use the kids' reactions to the bullfights in Spain as a way of further revealing their different dispositions and approaches toward life?

4. During her time on the Tivots' houseboat, Rosie is terribly intimidated by Nicole, who is critical and difficult to please. But as the novel progresses, similarities are revealed in the characters' pasts. Both Rosie and Nicole, for example, lost their mothers early. How does this loss affect each of the women? What else do Rosie and Nicole have in common despite their differences?

5. Recall the change Rosie senses in Nicole during their travels in Spain and her feeling that the trip had "loosened things" inside Nicole. After their return, Rosie believes that Nicole has come to trust her, yet she also suspects that Nicole knows about her affair with Marc. Is it possible that both of Rosie's insights are correct? Do you think Lola told Nicole that she saw Rosie and Marc holding hands? How do you account for the change in Nicole toward the end of the book? Why do you think she softens toward Rosie and toward Marc?

6. Trace the development of the women's relationship, and discuss how Rosie's presence affects Marc and Nicole's marriage. How does Rosie act as a conduit for Marc and Nicole? How does Rosie's love for Marc change him in Nicole's eyes?

7. Was Rosie really in love with Marc? He with her? Or were they using each other in various ways? Did you think that Rosie is just another au pair under Marc's belt? And did Nicole encourage their affair, want it to happen? What reasons would she have for that? What did Nicole learn from the way in which Rosie loved Marc?

8. What are Nicole's true motives in encouraging Rosie to live with and care for Lucie Quenelle in Plaire? Is she protecting her marriage, helping Lucie, or giving Rosie the gift of a warm mother figure and friend? What is the effect of Rosie growing close to Lucie and learning about Nicole's history? Is it possible that Nicole hoped Lucie would tell Rosie about her past?

9. The book offers detailed portraits of two marriages: Marcelle and Octave's and Nicole and Marc's. Compare and contrast the dynamics of each relationship. Do the similarities suggest that daughters are destined to repeat the marital patterns of their mothers? Why are both women so disappointed in their husbands? How do Octave and Marc react to their wives' emotional distance? Do you think that Nicole and Marc's marriage is as ill-fated as Marcelle and Octave's? Or is there still hope for their relationship?

10. Leslie, the other American fille Rosie meets, says: "The French have a totally different definition of marriage." Do you agree? Can one glean from the marriages depicted in this book what that definition might be?

11. Discuss the theme of unrequited love throughout the novel. Recall Octave's steadfast loyalty toward Marcelle; Père Frederi Lafond's obsession for Marie-Jo; Nicole's passion for her first boyfriend, Stephane; and Odile's infatuation with the sculptor Isabelle. Does the book suggest that we are drawn toward those who refuse to return our love? Compare and contrast these characters' reactions to rejection and loss. How do their disappointments shape their choices and futures?

12. Recall the "psychology test" Rosie gives Nicole and Marc in Spain, asking them to rank the people in a scenario from most admirable to most despicable. Apply the test to the characters in The Pleasing Hour. Which character do you find the most admirable? Which the least? Why? What traits do you most admire in people? What traits do you find the most deplorable or unforgivable?

13. Compare and contrast Rosie's experiences in Paris and in Plaire. What effect does the author achieve in the telling of the story by alternating between the two locales? What kind of refuge does each offer Rosie? What lessons do the two parts of her journey impart?

14. How has Rosie changed by the end of the novel? Do you think she will return to the United States, make amends with her sister, and come to terms with having given away her son? How do you think her experiences with the Tivots will influence how she copes with her own family? What do you envision in Rosie's future?

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Customer Reviews

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( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2013

    How much does this cost


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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2000

    Not Terrible

    This is probably best read on the beach or on a plane - definitely leisure reading. Lily King is skillful at storytelling and her imagery is rich. I wouldn't say that this is the best book I've ever read, but it was definitely enjoyable. The story is disjointed at times and some of the relationships between the characters aren't so clear. It doesn't make so much sense why Nicole is so resentful of Rosie, even from their first meeting. Also, I didn't see as many direct similarities between these two characters as King seemed to be trying to create. The bull fighting scene is excellent - probably the best in the book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2000

    Not that great!!!

    When I started this book I was excited. Then it became confusing. Too many characters. I liked Rosie and understod why she ran however I think that could have been developed a little more. I wanted to find out what happened at home. I finished the book a few days ago and can't remember the ending.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2000

    Great American Novel or Chessy Romance Novel

    The Pleasing Hour was an excellent novel for the first 45 pages, but as you got deeper in the book it became harder and harder to keep track of all the characters and how they were linked to eachother. Toward the end of the book it becomes more of a chessy romance novel as Rosie tries to find herself. The book is much more fitting for an older reader, definitly not a 13 or 14 year old. I am not completely dissing the book because I think if I was older and had expeirenced more of life I would have gotten so much more out of it. I am not dissing Lily King I think this book shows promise for her writting abilities.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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