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French Lessons by Ellen Sussman
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's review
Jun 30, 2011

it was amazing
Read in June, 2011

Here’s my tip: read French Lessons by Ellen Sussman while sitting in a cafe having a chocolate croissant and good coffee. That’s the easiest and fastest way to transport yourself to Paris this summer.

French Lessons by Ellen Sussman delivers Paris in her myriad facets, conjuring freshly baked pain au chocolat, strolling by the Seine, and the thrill of a romantic dalliance. This is Paris through the eyes of three Americans at a crossroads in their lives, who, in discovering Paris, rediscover themselves. Their stories divide the book into three parts, each with a distinct perspective. Josie, Riley, and Jeremy each have hired a French tutor to make them more comfortable with the language. With this same premise, however, their experiences and what they get out of the one day’s lesson are remarkably different from each other's. Sussman deftly changes the mood and tone of each story to match the character’s personality: heartbreaking and bittersweet in one story, smart and racy in the next, then sensitive and yearning in another.

The strongest story of the bunch is that of grief-stricken Josie, who has fled to Paris in the wake of a doomed love affair with a married man. Her narrative alternates between the memories of the excitement and guilt of an illicit relationship with a man she can no longer be with and the very present possibility of a fling with her French tutor. Despite her broken heart, somehow Josie responds to the magic of being in Paris. No one can resist her allure, least of all the reader.

As the stories are brief but intense glimpses into Josie, Riley, and Jeremy’s lives, so do they offer Paris from multiple viewpoints, each one beguiling.

"Paris. The city of sex. The city of clandestine affairs. The city of French tutors in pathetic apartments. The city where the pain au chocolat you eat in the morning is only the first erotic taste of the day. The city where you can stop talking long enough to hear the song your mother sang."

"On their second day together they walked through a neighborhood filled with antique stores so that Chantal could teach him the language of furniture and jewelry and art...They stood in the charming clutter of the old man's atelier, with the man's low steady voice in his ear and the odors of the wood and solvents and Chantal's fragrant perfume in his nose. The late-afternoon light filtered through the small, high windows of the shop, and Jeremy thought: I'm happy here. This is where I belong."
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