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About the Author
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.
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.
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
What People are Saying About This
“Lily King’s splendid new novel consists of one beginning after another, all so assured that it’s hard to believe the book itself is her debut” The New York Times Book Review
“Delightful . . . [This] remarkably well-written book . . . introduces a very talented writer of great promise.”The Washington Post Book World
“Written with quiet, lyric forcefulness . . . An impressive debut from a writer who knows how to uncover the saving impulses of the heart.”Elle
“A rich first novel about families lost and found from a promising writer with an ear for language from the heart, that touches deeply.”The Christian Science Monitor
“King can brushes lush descriptions, with majestic colors and vivid, fleeting pleasures.” The Seattle Times
“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.”USA Today
“Brace yourselfThe Pleasing Hour is an intense novel, full of secrets and complicated situations.”Seventeen
“Here, as with a palimpsest, each new form of pleasing delineated by the author is made more complex by the imprint of the last.”The New Yorker
“King brings alive a palette of colorful and robust characters that might have been collected from an afternoon sidewalk café in Provence. . . . This is a rich first novel about families lost and found from a promising writer with an ear for the kind of languagelanguage from the heart, that touches deeply.” The Christian Science Monitor
“King’s economy with detail is perfectly calibrated to the tension created by Rosie’s language deficit, cultural discomfort, and emotional isolation. . . . Though she tells lean stories, King can brush lush descriptions, with majestic colors and vivid, fleeting pleasures.”The Seattle Times
“Well written, absorbing . . . [King] is an accomplished stylist, repeatedly demonstrating a fine control of her complicated structure. . . . An altogether pleasing debut.”Newsday
“The Pleasing Hour is a beautiful, sad novel that leaves a lasting impression.”New Woman
“King delivers an emotionally suspenseful story in language nearly as exquisite as the setting itself . . . The Pleasing Hour, like all intersections at which lives converge, belongs to more than one personbut ultimately it is Rosie whose emotional evolution we celebrate, and with it the arrival of Lily King to the world of bright new literary voices.”Ploughshares
“In gentle, elegant prose, first novelist King . . . has taken some unusual elements and worked them into a believable, beautifully etched tale of people who, scarred by their past, are now trying to get it right.”Library Journal
“Expertly constructed, full of surprises, superbly paced, and sweetly sad, King’s book hardly reads like a first novel . . . the seamless integration of theme, plot and voice produces a rare sense of intimacy.”Publishers Weekly
“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.”Booklist
“Intriguing the central character’s complexity and many of the descriptive details are pleasing.”Kirkus Reviews
“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.” Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body
“This is a lovely book, elegant and wise, full of illuminations about France, and families, and love.” Roxana Robinson, author of This Is My Daughter and Summer Light
“Lily King has written a luminous first novel. Her psychology is original and subtle, her mise en scene perfect, her deft and lovely language and gentle humor irresistible. The Pleasing Hour is a find, and a joy.” Beth Gutcheon, author of Saying Grace and Five Fortunes
“In this lovely, subtle debut novel, Lily King writes with delicacy and wisdom of inner and outer lives, of exclusion, loneliness, and survival. The music of her writing is a deliciousness in itself. She sees with a rare discernment, an insight as profound and surprising as it is graceful and forgiving, and understands the complex structures invented by the will to love. In The Pleasing Hour, she imbues love’s insistent formsits misbegotten, maternal, and romantic powerswith a poignancy that enchants.” Alice Fulton, author of Sensual Math
Reading Group Guide
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 thenovel 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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.
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.