Lessons in French: A Novel

Lessons in French: A Novel

by Hilary Reyl

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Overview

An evocative, coming-of-age story about a Yale graduate’s year in Paris as an assistant to a legendary American photographer: “An appealing debut novel” (Oprah.com, Editor’s Pick).

It’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is coming down, and Kate has just graduated from Yale, eager to pursue her dreams as a fledgling painter. When she is offered a job 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 the art world, but to return to France for the first time since, as a lonely nine-year-old girl, she was sent to the outskirts of Paris to live with cousins while her father was dying.

Kate may speak fluent French, but she arrives at the Schell household in the fashionable Sixth Arrondissement both overwhelmed and naïve. She finds herself surrounded by a seductive cast of characters: the members of the bright, pretentious family with whom she boards, their assortment of famous friends, Kate’s own flamboyant cousin, a fellow Yalie who seems to have it all figured out, and a bande of independently wealthy young men with royal lineage. As Kate rediscovers Paris and her roots there, she begins to question the kindness of the glamorous people to whom she is so drawn as well as her own motives in wanting their affection.

In compelling and sympathetic prose, Hilary Reyl perfectly captures this portrait of a precocious, ambitious young woman struggling to define herself in a vibrant world that spirals out of her control. Lessons in French is “rich and magnetic, a snapshot of one young woman’s life in a city at once ancient and bubbling over with life” (Booklist).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451687941
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 07/29/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Hilary Reyl has a PhD 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.

What People are Saying About This

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 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 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.

Reading Group Guide

Lessons in French Hilary Reyl Reading Group Guide This reading group guide for Lessons in French includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Hilary Reyl. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

Set against the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Lessons in French follows Kate, a recent Yale graduate who moves to Paris to work with renowned photographer Lydia Schell. Lydia proves an unstable tour de force who introduces Kate to the likes of Umberto Eco and Henri Cartier-Bresson while testing Kate’s patience with unpredictable work assignments. A talented artist in her own right, Kate struggles to establish her own style in both her artwork and personal life, both of which are challenged throughout the novel. As Kate’s relationships with Lydia and her family become more complicated than she ever could have anticipated, she is faced with a decision: sacrifice her burgeoning individuality for the sake of her job or sacrifice a budding career to maintain her integrity. With guidance from family and an eclectic group of confidantes, Kate rejects the Schell’s enticing but complicated bourgeoisie lifestyle in order truly to develop her art and stay true to herself.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1) At the beginning of the novel, Kate explains her taste in art: “I was too literal. I loved the Monets, but I didn’t entirely trust them” (p. 15). How does Kate’s literal approach to her own art change throughout the novel? How does it stay the same?

2) Lessons in French features a variety of complicated characters. Who is your favorite character? Who is your least favorite? Explain your choices.

3) In the beginning days of Kate’s Paris experience, she reflects that she felt her “world gelling anew as if [she] had finally found the right prescription for a pair of glasses” (p. 36). Ironically this clarity is a product of her relationships with Clarence and Lydia. Do you think this quote still holds true despite the complications and deceptions that arise in these relationships?

4) The Berlin Wall is as much a character in Lessons in French as the people. What parallels can be drawn between the fall of the wall and Kate’s relationship with the Schell family?

5) When discussing Kate’s art work, Claudia tells her that she is “trying to avoid a style” (p. 122) with her drawings—a feat Claudia deems impossible. Why do you think Kate, who is otherwise a very talented artist, struggles to find her style?

6) Kate discusses her drawing techniques with Étienne, she says, “I don’t change things. I see them. I have a talent for seeing” (p. 163). Do you agree with her artistic observation? Do you think it’s true of her personal interactions? Explain.

7) Kate describes Rushdie as striving to “change his condition” while still inhabiting it (p.235). Do any other characters also “inhabit” their conditions even as they try to change? Which characters successfully change their situations?

8) After Kate is fired by Lydia, Kate observes, “These people were crass. These people were tragic. These people were ultimately ordinary” (p. 222). Do you agree with her assessment of the Schell family? Explain your answer.

9) Many relationships in Lessons in French are filled with secrets and deception. What relationship is the most dysfunctional? What relationship is the healthiest? 10) The romance between Kate and Olivier is one of the most complicated relationships in the novel. Did you foresee its ending? If you were the author, what ending would you write for the couple?

11) From the politics of the Berlin Wall and Salman Rushdie to the AIDS crisis, Lessons in French touches on serious cultural issues that took place in the late 1980s. What is the most influential historical topic in the novel? Can you think of any other topics that would be interesting or relevant to the story?

12) Étienne’s AIDS diagnosis shocks Kate and Christie. Did you anticipate Étienne’s illness? What other plot twists surprised you?

13) Kate’s final observation of herself is that she is “no longer accent-free to the point of invisibility” (p.337). How does her “accent” develop throughout the story? How is her accent—or lack thereof—symbolic?

14) Discuss what you think is the book’s main takeaway message. If you could ask the author one question about the book, what would it be?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Have a French style book club meeting. Play French music and enjoy traditional pastries—and don’t forget the croissants!

2. Read the history behind the fiction. Find out interesting an interesting fact about the fall of the Berlin Wall or one of the many famous authors in Lessons in French.

3. Have an art talk! Most of the characters in Lessons in French are either artists or art aficionados. Share your favorite artists and works with your book club.

4. Learn more about first-time novelist Hilary Reyl. Visit her website, http://www.hilaryreyl.com/, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


A Conversation with Hilary Reyl

Kate has had several different experiences with France and Paris in particular. You have also spent time in France and are familiar with French culture. How much did you draw on your own experiences for Kate’s story? Did you conduct additional research?

I spent a year in Normandy with my family when I was eleven and twelve. My father was an academic, writing his dissertation, and could live anywhere for a short period, so my parents decided to take my sister and me to France. We started out in Paris, but it was too expensive and the school there put us in a class for foreigners. So we ended up in the servants' cottage of a small chateau outside a tiny village surrounded by cows and sheep. A lovely husband and wife teaching team took us under their wing and, in very little time, I was fluent and in love with France. Like my character, Kate, I was young enough to get the accent and old enough to intellectualize – and romanticize – the experience.

I returned to France during summers to visit family friends in Paris and my teachers from Normandy, with whom I am still close. But I didn't live in France again until the fall of 1989, right after I graduated from college, when I spent a year in Paris working for a journalist. Then, in the academic year of 1993-94, I did coursework for my master's degree in French Literature at the Paris campus of NYU, taking classes at the Sorbonne. These were the years when I immersed myself in the city, and they remain incredibly vivid to me.

Insofar as Paris is a character in my novel, I have drawn heavily on my own time there, on my memories of food and impressions of the streets and the sensation of living in two languages. I too happen to love Berthillon ice cream, chestnut croissants, and the Rodin sculpture garden. Mornings in the Luxembourg Gardens and late nights dancing at clubs like Les Bains Douches are etched in my mind so that I was able to transpose them fluently into my fiction. The Parisian setting was strong enough inside me that I needed very little research to recreate its scenes.

Like Kate, you have a personal history with France. Do you have a favorite French town or location? What is your favorite element of French culture?

I have three favorite places in France.

The Marais, which literally means the “swamp” because it is land reclaimed from the Seine in the early 1600s, is an old labyrinthian part of Paris on the right bank, with tiny streets, and a gorgeous Henri IV square called Place des Vosges where Victor Hugo lived. I spent a year in the Marais, studying French literature, living in a minute studio on a cobblestone passageway. Since it was so central, I would walk to all my classes on the various Paris campuses, and, coming home, feel like I was returning to the ancient beating heart of the city.

My second favorite location could not be less famous or glamorous. It is the region of Normandy called l'Orne where I lived for a year as a girl with my family and first fell in love with the French language, culture and food. France for me will always be about rain-soaked green pastures, stone cider presses ringing apple trees, cows and more cows, the taste of raw-milk Camembert and the French I learned in my one-room village school.

Finally, I love a small town on the Mediterranean coast, between Nice and Monaco, called Beaulieu sur Mer. It is relaxed, sun-drenched and draped in Bougainvillea. My husband Charles and I had our wedding reception there in a Greek villa on the sea. It was an idyllic place to mingle our French and American worlds. My crowning memory is of croissants on the beach at sunrise.

Lessons in French is filled with intriguing characters, including real-life artists and writers. How did you determine your cast of famous characters? Did you always plan on featuring Salman Rushdie as Lydia’s artistic inspiration?

I wanted to populate the Schell world with impressive figures from art and literature in order to give it the jet-set intellectual atmosphere that Kate is so dazzled by. And I chose the particular artists for specifically thematic reasons.

I have always been intrigued by Henri Cartier Bresson's take on photography, and, as I was writing, I recalled reading a wonderful New Yorker piece, back in 1989, about his late-in-life transition from photography to drawing, which struck me as a perfect inspiration for Kate's artistic development.

I decided to feature Umberto Eco because he was very much a cultural arbiter at the time the novel is set. He was both fashionable AND an intellectual heavyweight, exactly the sort of person to set the Schell tone.

Harry Matthews has a quality of mischief in his writing and in what I know of his life that makes him a perfect tragicomic figure for the book and a particularly sympathetic figure to Kate.

Lydia's relationship with Salman Rushdie is complicated and I hope her attraction to him reflects her complexity as a character. She is drawn to his story out of a profound sense of justice, but she is also drawn to his fame as a moth to light. Through her photographs, she wants to participate in the history to which he is central, and also to associate her name with his. So he is both an important political figure and a source of glamour for her. And the two roles are impossible to separate out.

Which character do you identify with the most? Do you have a favorite character?

The character I identify with most is Kate because I too spent formative years in Paris during which I grew up a considerably. Some of my most painful memories are there, as well as my happiest. But my favorite characters are Jacques and Solange. They are a collage of all the “parent” figures I have known, mixed in with some of my favorite literary characters from Balzac and Proust. When I picture them, I feel waves of gratitude and love.

Lessons in French takes place during the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. What made you decide to set the novel during this time? Did you consider other time periods?

I briefly considered setting the novel in the mid-seventies, which is the first period during which I lived in France, but decided on 1989-90 because it was more vivid to me and also because it was a more crucial time politically. The Berlin Wall coming down, leaving two worlds that had been separated for years suddenly facing one another, provided a deep sense of possibility as well as anxiety and unrest. This tumult heightened Kate's own sense of being poised at the start of something “big” with no idea how she was going to pull it off.

Most romantic relationships in the novel are deeply flawed, particularly Clarence’s and Lydia’s dysfunctional marriage. What do you think readers will take away from these relationships? What made you decide to keep Lydia and Clarence together even after Clarence’s infidelity?

First of all, a dysfunctional relationship makes for much better dialogue than a happy one! Secondly, I was interested in exploring the ways that abuse and competition can bind people like Lydia and Clarence, who are ultimately realistic and grittily ambitious, whereas often relationships based in romantic fantasy and obsession, like Kate and Olivier's or Claudia and Clarence's, can't endure. Lydia and Clarence are “two wings of a trapped moth.” They torture one another, but they are also part of the same animal. And when they are threatened, as when Joshua joins the army, or when they decide to turn on Kate or to banish Olivier or Claudia, they unite in a reflexive defensive posture. I wanted to show their cruelty not only as a kind of tragicomic affection but also as a form of destructive dependency that is stronger than they are as individuals. Nothing, not even infidelity, can break them apart.

Although initially mesmerized by the Schell family, Kate ultimately decides to leave Paris at the story’s end. Did you ever consider an alternative ending for Kate’s journey?

I knew Kate's arc from the outset of my writing. While I wasn't always sure of the exact turns she would take, and I discovered many shades of her personality as I went, the fact that she would break free of her “mentors” and slowly come into her own, both as an artist and as a member of her true family, was never in doubt.

Lessons in French is your first published novel. What was your favorite part of novel writing? What was the most challenging?

My favorite part of novel writing, because it was the most interesting, was also the most challenging. It was finding the balance between pain and pleasure. Although Kate and I have wildly different stories, the emotional truth of my early twenties was similar to hers. I tried to combat my formlessness with an eagerness to please that makes me cringe when I look back. But it also makes me nostalgic, tender and amused toward my old self. In the novel, I hoped to evoke Kate's insecurity along with her growing intelligence and sense of humor and joy. It took several drafts, pushing deeper each time, to get at my emotional truth. Yet even as parts of the book became painful, I tried to maintain its sense of play and give voice to my joy in immersing myself in the wonders of Paris. So it was a delicate balance between coming to terms with the awkwardness of youth and shaping it into a story, a story which, while “difficult” remains pleasurable to read.

In your opinion, what is the main message in Lessons in French? What do you hope your readers learn from the novel?

I did not write Lessons in French with one specific lesson in mind, although Kate does learn throughout the story.

In the broadest sense, Kate comes into a style of her own. Gradually, she takes responsibility for her actions just as she allows herself to own up to her artistic choices rather than desperately trying to reflect the world and the desires and opinions of everyone who impresses her. She also becomes a nuanced judge of character, finally able to see the Schells and Olivier in their true colors, because she is progressively more able to discern complexity in human nature. So, it is a book about forming personality, and I hope it will speak to anyone who has ever floundered in this pursuit.

The book is also very much about family, about the way a young person in new surroundings will attempt to forge bonds that imitate those she has known or wished for. Katie tries to find the “father” she has lost and to seek the approval of a “mother” whom she perceives as more successful than her own. Ultimately, though, she comes to see that her own heritage is richer and truer for her than the one she aspires to. But it is not a direct path, and it is certainly not an uninteresting one for Kate. I suppose everyone has to find her own balance between true and adopted family. There is no specific right or wrong, but there is a moral compass in each of us, and so much of growing up is finding it for oneself.

Do you have any other creative projects in the works?

I am currently working on a novel called “Borrasca,” which means the opposite of Bonanza. It is a father-daughter story set in the 1970's, mostly in California. It is a major reworking of the first novel I ever attempted, but have not been able to get right despite several versions. I feel that I have finally found a way to tell the story to its fullest effect and I am very excited about the writing as it goes forward.

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Lessons in French 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
MTDIVA More than 1 year ago
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"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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! 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.  
jmchshannon More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A fabulous, evocative rendition of Paris in the late 80s and a touching and insightful tale of a young woman finding her voice. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book!  I wish I were young and in Paris!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.