Ah, a bit of fluff, this French Lessons, A Novel? Not just French, but Paris lessons? We know it’s Paris from the book’s cover; the near-shadowed back of a woman whose face, if it could be seen, would no doubt be looking wistfully from her opened window (with just a hint of an iron-worked balcony showing). And then there’s the romantic and hurried sketch of the Eiffel Tower introducing the first chapter, The Tutors.
And so begins a remarkable bit of fluff. Not your ordinary fluff; this tale of literary lightness will take your heart away in one sitting. Ellen Sussman, one of San Francisco’s literary gems, has delivered a modern fable that takes place on one day in the City of Lights. On the French side are three French teachers, two men, one woman, all coworkers at the same language school. On the expat side are three Americans, two women and one man.
Each American has their own story: sad, shocking, sexy, romantic and even regretful. Josie is a high school French teacher, possibly pregnant and running away from her grief at the death of her married lover. Riley, a vulnerable young wife and mother of two (an infant and toddler), moved to Paris with her businessman husband who is increasingly absent from her and his family life. Last is Jeremy, the oldest American, a normally wise and thoughtful man who has accompanied his wife of more than ten years on a movie shoot in Paris. Jeremy’s wife is a world-famous American movie star, and the scene shot on this particular day is a unifying event in this fluid and multifaceted story. The French teachers are Nico, a handsome and mostly unemployed musician and lover of any willing female, Phillipe, charmingly soft-spoken and a newly published poet who loves Chantal, and Chantal, beautiful and somewhat mysterious and disastrously in love with Nico.
Nico tutors Josie, who is conveniently willing and whose French is hardly lacking. Riley, whose French is mostly nonexistent, is linguistically and otherwise moved by Phillipe. And Jeremy is charmed by Chantal, the tutor his wife has so generously paid for so that he will be occupied while she is busy filming. The author manages to keep all these relationships beautifully air-borne throughout the story. And should the reader expect less? It is Paris, after all. Can you say Paris without thinking romance, Frenchman without imagining seduction, and don’t all Frenchwomen have an enviable sexual sophistication?
Sketched in Sussman’s words, Paris, the City of Lights, a place where real love should be discovered if not illuminated, becomes a city where it can rain for days on end, where the path to true love can be clouded over, washed away, or brought to bear by thunderous realities. All fables deserve morals and French Lessons is no different. Home is where the heart is, and what all the characters discover, when the day is over, is that where the heart is there is love.