Bottom Line: The entire story was too pretentious for my taste, or else I’m too bourgeois to enjoy it properly. I really should have DNF’d it.
“It’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is about to come down, and Kate has just graduated from Yale. She is anxious to make her mark, yet has no idea how to pursue life as a fledgling painter. So when she receives a surprising job offer to work 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 it all, but also to return to the city for the first time since she was a lonely nine-year-old girl sent to live with cousins while her father was dying of cancer.Kate’s accent may be perfect, but she arrives at the Schell household in the fashionable Sixth Arrondissement both dazzled and wildly impressionable. She finds herself surrounded by a cast of characters, including the bright, pretentious Schells, Kate’s flamboyant cousin, a fellow Yalie who seems to have it all figured out, and a band of independently wealthy young men with royal lineage. And as she tries to fit into Lydia’s glamorous and complicated family, Kate forgets that she has one of her own.”
Thoughts: 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.