Learning a Family’s Language: Lessons in French by Hilary Reyl

cover image of Lessons in French Lessons in French is Hilary Reyl‘s first novel, but it shows the fluency of long practice and careful editing. Lessons in French was sold to me (figuratively speaking) by a publicist with these words:

“Hilary Reyl’s Lessons in French is a dramatic and evocative story set in 1989 in City of Light on the eve of the reunification of Europe. Trade reviewers have also been enchanted: Booklist says ‘Reyl’s first novel is rich and magnetic, a snapshot of one young woman’s life in a city at once ancient and bubbling over with life.’ Library Journal named it one of their Top 7 Debuts to Watch in 2013, calling Lessons in French a ‘bittersweet tale of personal growth and a paean (well deserved!) to Paris.’”

Lessons in French has also received acclaim from Oprah since its release on March 8th. Lessons in French is not a perfect book – It may be getting more attention due to its glamorous setting than a coming of age story set in Topeka, Kansas would – but I did enjoy it for its glimpses into the arrondissements of Paris and the situations the young female narrator of the story, Kate (Katie, as she is known to friends) finds herself in.

The author evokes the city of Paris during a time of historic change in Europe – the fall of the Berlin Wall – mirroring this change in Katie’s crisis of identity. Katie feels fragmented from only showing certain sides of herself to certain people. I would have liked the author to include more about European politics, the writers of the day, and the clashing philosophies of the time, but the novel is written from 20-something-year-old Katie’s somewhat limited perspective. Katie’s interests lie more in art and personal relationships than in history, politics, or literature.

Katie’s return trip to Paris is bittersweet, because she had been sent to French relatives as a child while her father was dying, and is leaving her mother home alone in New York. Her pride in her perfect French is tempered by sorrow and a guilty awareness of the contrast between her family’s economic status and her new employer’s. Katie can barely afford to live on the salary of the personal assistant job that she accepted without revealing that it would be her only source of income. Katie lives frugally while Lydia, the photographer who employs her as live-in help, charges her exorbitant rent for her garret room with airplane toilet and doesn’t invite her to restaurant meals, only claiming Katie as “family” when it means she needs to walk the dog every day, even on her weekends off.

Like Katie, the author lived in France after college, and was in Paris during the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, a richly symbolic event that lends historical background to this American-girl-in-Paris, coming-of-age story. In an interview on the BlogTalkRadio show, My Inner French Girl, the author explains that the Lessons in French isn’t autobiographical, although she did draw on her own experiences and feelings from that time to create the character of Katie and others. She also did spend time in France as a child with her family, and learned, like Katie, to speak French so well that she could pass for a Parisian when she went back. A French literature scholar, the author remarked in the interview that she intended Lessons in French to be an updating of the traditional, 19th-century French novel (e.g. those by Flaubert or Balzac) about a naive young person from the country (usually male) arriving in the city to come of age in Paris.

Katie has traveled outside of her comfort zone to spend a year in Paris working for Lydia, an artist who has just started making forays into photojournalism, documenting events like the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and she isn’t sure that she’s made the right choice. (Her mother has an LSAT application ready for her to fill out.) Katie draws, but she’s not sure she’s any good. She hopes to spend more time developing her art while in Paris (where better?) but is pulled in all different directions by Lydia’s family drama – meltdowns, accusations, and potentally damaging secret-keeping.

Trying to please everyone all of the time (including the dog) Katie finds herself with little or no time of her own to pursue a romance (with, problematically, the ex-boyfriend of her employers’ daughter), to hang out with her French cousins and friends, or to visit the French relatives she stayed with as a girl. It takes time for her to learn her way around Lydia’s dysfunctional household and to gain an appreciation for what being family truly means.

I recommend this to readers looking for a character-driven, first-person story about being young, in love, and insecure in Paris – with enough intrusive reality to keep the story from being a dreamy romance; enough humor to keep it from taking itself too seriously; enough French food to make your mouth water (I’m craving an almond croissant right now); and enough appearances of Umberto Eco to make it literary fiction. Older readers may become impatient with Katie’s lack of confidence at times, but remember, everybody was young once!

Lessons in French
Reyl, Hilary
Simon & Schuster
March 2013
341 pp.
$24.00, US

You can read more about the author on Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project blog.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher.

Other opinions on Lessons in French (mixed):
Curious Book Fans
Czuk It
Reading & Eating
That’s What She Read
You Book Me All Night Long

2 thoughts on “Learning a Family’s Language: Lessons in French by Hilary Reyl”

  1. I have to be honest and say it sounded okay from the pitch, but you’ve made it sound a lot more interesting. Reading about the Berlin Wall with Paris being the focus sounds fascinating.

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