Lessons in French
Hilary Reyl
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Buy *Lessons in French* by Hilary Reylonline

Lessons in French
Hilary Reyl
Simon and Schuster
352 pages
March 2013
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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A wonderful new voice on the literary scene, Reyl delivers a debut novel that is witty, wise, wry, sardonic and satirical. Maintaining a dark sense of humor, Reyl exposes the nonsense in contemporary intellectual culture, setting her tale in Paris in 1989 and unfurling her heroine’s desires and insecurities in a kind of curious, brilliant, and loving benignity. In Germany, the Berlin Wall is about to come down, a momentous happening that renowned photojournalist Lydia Schell is determined to capture on film.

Newly graduated from college, Kate has been trying to ignore the advice from her mother to get a job in a law firm. Instead she finds herself in Paris, employed as a secretary for Lydia and a sort of confidante to Clarence, Lydia’s bookish writer husband. Kate is acutely self-conscious and at the same time utterly capable of changing her life to achieve happiness. She lived in France when she was young, and her late father’s cousins live in Orleans, along with their son Etienne (who, as the story progresses, plays a pivotal role in the plot and proves to be Kate’s trusted confidant).

Kate wants to impress the Schells, and she’s the first to admit that she is a serious young woman who cannot afford to be careless. From her first days in Paris, “a city whose shapes are still unclear,” Kate has no idea what tomorrow will look like. Ensconced in the Spartan sixth-floor maid’s room, the garret that comes attached to “every Paris apartment,” Kate loves her view of the Luxembourg Gardens and dreams of one day having the Schells’ “freedoms of privilege.” She starts working with Lydia, amused by the woman’s consumption of her beloved papaya extract pills, but she can’t help feeling intensely jealous of Portia, Lydia and Clarence’s spoiled, self-involved daughter who will soon be returning from New York.

Kate’s life revolves around two men: Olivier, Portia’s handsome boyfriend, who is extremely social and cultured, yet disparages much of the Schells’ elitist world; and open-minded Clarence with his “sexy intelligence.” It is only natural that Kate idolizes Clarence, imbuing him with extraordinary qualities. Kate’s own life, meanwhile, has been pared down to essentials: dining and drinking with Lydia’s friends, a number of world-famous intellectuals and waiting for her Olivier (and Etienne) to call her.

Gradually sucked into the Schells’ paranoid orbit, Kate becomes a victim of her own circumstances, going to Paris nightclubs with Etienne while drunk or getting involved with questionable Olivier, heedless of his attachment to Portia in her passion to be with him. Olivier keeps promising Kate that he’s going to break up with Portia because he thinks she’s inherited “this sort of sad, romantic version of her parents spoiledness.” Caught up in a series of unfortunate lies, Kate constantly justifies her position to Lydia: “I’ve been exploited and narcissistic, believing myself so large in the hearts and minds of these people.”

Craving affection and security, Kate desperately attempts to discover whether Olivier is being loyal and how she can stay in contact with him. She quickly becomes a go-between between Clarence, his girlfriend, Claudia, and militant Lydia, who refuses to act like a scorned wife. Kate’s emotions become dangerously tangled among the three. Meandering through defeat after defeat, entirely unsatisfied and pining for the money to pay for her share of the rent, Kate ultimately faces the consequences of her love affair. Paris proves a gorgeous backdrop to her journey, the cobblestone streets and soaring Cathedral of Notre-Dame a powerful symbol for the long, slow buildup of guilt that comes to a tipping point, ultimately flooding Kate’s conscience.

Dipping into the stream of Parisian lives, Kate bears witness to a time of great change, but her own life is reduced to the bare facts of the debased, self-involved livelihood of her expatriate employers. Reyl is unremittingly spare in exposing the subjectivity and emotional honesty of Kate’s perception of the Schells and of Paris, a city that literally glitters and shines around her.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2013

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