Thursday, September 6, 2012

French Lessons

Author: Ellen Sussman
Publisher: Ballantine (Random House)
Author's Website:
Released: July 5, 2011
Genre: Contemporary (ADULT)
Series: No
Source: Library eBook
Challenge: None
Since this is primarily a YA blog, I feel I must make it very clear, especially because I didn't know going into this that I should expect it - French Lessons is very much an adult book! And don't let the pretty feminine cover fool you - it's a gritty story.

French Lessons follows the day of three people and their respective French tutors, completely separate stories connected by the characters' epiphanies about love. The stories are bookended by the tutors meeting at the beginning and end of the day, bringing the tutors into the love stories. But really, the book is not about love stories, about finding love. It's about finding the meaning of love. And every character finds a different meaning of love.

Each student is struggling with something - Josie just lost her boyfriend of a complicated relationship, Riley is dealing with a distant husband in a strange new country, and Jeremy grapples with his relationship with his wife. They all lean to their French tutors for a bit of romance, but their tutors are dealing with their own messes and react in sometimes unexpected ways. In the end, both students and tutors (most tutors!) learn what love means to them and gain the strength and confidence to make decisions about their own love lives.

French Lessons is ultimately a hopeful book with a positive message about love, but for the majority of the book, hopelessness and despair drenches the pages. And I love how that's achieved - short, terse sentences, dialogue with very few taglines, quick repartee among the characters. It draws you in, especially Josie and Riley's stories, until their grief and wild desperation seep right into you and fill you up.

I love how time is used in the book, how the characters move back and forth between the day that is the present and their memories of what's happened up until then to bring them to the state they're in at this point. The seamless interweaving works beautifully to transcend time and make their experiences timeless. Josie's story also works really well because her grief is portrayed through that cutting back and forth, in the way a grieving person would really remember things in fits and spurts throughout the day.

Bedroom scenes are an important part of the story, since it drives some of the characters' stories so strongly, and what's great is that each character's description has a different tone, a different quality to it. It's this difference that defines the characters' perceptions of love, and the ability to convey those subtle shades of attitudes is a sign of a master!

Personal note - I read this book from start to finish without stopping once! It does that to you - pulls you in and doesn't let you go until you know exactly what happens. And I like the open-endedness of the finish, too, the way some things are wrapped up but some things are left to the imagination. A really satisfying read!

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