Review: Lessons in French

Lessons in FrenchHilary Reyl, Lessons in French

In 1989, Kate is a fresh-faced college graduate who dreams of becoming an artist someday. So she’s overjoyed when she is hired as an assistant to Lydia Schell, a famous American photographer currently living in Paris. Kate is excited to make the most of this opportunity, but she soon discovers that Lydia is an extremely demanding boss. For example, Kate not only coordinates Lydia’s schedule and runs her errands, but she is also expected to help Lydia’s husband Clarence with the book he is writing about 19th-century French fashion. The longer Kate stays with the Schells, the more she realizes that their seemingly successful family is fraught with dysfunction. As Kate tries to please all parties, she is pulled in so many conflicting directions that she begins to lose her own identity in the process.

I liked the basic idea of this book — naive American girl moves to Paris and learns about herself and the world — but overall it fell far short of my expectations. My biggest problem was that every single character, including the heroine, is absolutely insufferable. Kate is a total doormat, doing every single thing the Schells tell her to do regardless of how demeaning (and how unrelated to her job description). She’s also too stupid to see some really obvious things about the Schells that are going on right under her nose. I spent the whole book wishing she’d grow a spine, and while she sort of does at the end, it’s definitely too little, too late. As for the Schells, they’re pretentious pseudo-intellectual snobs with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I did like the 1989 setting, with the Berlin Wall coming down and the Gulf War about to begin, but it didn’t play a very big part in the novel. Basically this book made me feel angry and frustrated, and only the somewhat competent writing style kept me reading until the end.

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