French Lessons – Ellen Sussman

“Sometimes the lessons you learn unexpectedly are the ones that affect you the most. Josie arrives in Paris in the hope of healing a broken heart. Riley, a lonely housewife, is struggling to feel connected to her husband, and her new country. Jeremy, a loyal, neglected husband of a famous actress, has accompanied his wife as she films on location, yet he feels increasingly isolated from her world. As they meander along the grand boulevards and intimate, winding Parisian streets with their French tutors – Josie with Nico, a sensitive poet, Riley with Philippe, a shameless flirt; and Jeremy with the beautiful Chantal – each succumbs to unexpected passion and unpredictable adventures. When long-buried secrets come to bear and relationships are challenged – can their lives ever be the same again?”

I was hooked on this exquisite book from the start. Three French tutors – Nico, Chantal and Philippe – are stuck in a rather predictable love triangle. However, their drama is put aside as they all meet their charges for the day and take them round France, conducting a French lesson and perhaps doing slightly more than they are paid for. Each pair go slightly deeper than ‘bonjour’ and ‘je m’appelle’ – Nico is rather taken with Josie, who is grieving for her dead married boyfriend and trying to escape the guilt of the affair – and the secret she is currently carrying. Riley is stuck in a country she has come to hate, in a loveless marriage, anchored there only by her two children. Not even a shock announcement from her mother can bring her back, but an encounter with player Philippe helps her realise what she really wants – and needs. Jeremy’s flirtation with Chantal is interrupted both by his stepdaughter and his wife/director Dana who has bought him French lessons as a present.

We see all three stories of these students in a beautifully intertwining and delicately written manner. There is true sadness and poignance in Josie’s story; Riley’s pain and utter loss at being mired in this country jumps off the page and Jeremy’s longing is summarised in a sun-soaked scene on Chantal’s houseboat. Meanwhile, the dynamics between the three teachers are shifting and things come to a head at the end of the day, which has been long and emotional for all of them. Certain events link all three stories together in a unobtrusive, clever way.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that French Lessons is a work of chick-lit. It’s a gorgeous book that plays on a range of emotions, that does each story justice without over-egging it or ending abruptly. This book will be perfect for the summer – take it to a sunny park and read to your heart’s content.

Many thanks to Constable & Robinson for the review copy.

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