Lessons in French
By Hilary Reyl
(Simon & Schuster, Hardcover, 9781451655032, 352pp.)
Publication Date: March 5, 2013
It’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is coming down, and Kate has just graduated from Yale, eager to pursue her dreams as a fledgling painter. When she receives a 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 France for the first time since she was a lonely nine-year-old girl, sent to the outskirts of Paris to live with cousins while her father was dying.
Kate may speak fluent French, but she arrives at the Schell household in the fashionable Sixth Arrondissement both dazzled and wildly impressionable. She finds herself surrounded by a seductive cast of characters, including the bright, pretentious Schells, with whom she boards, and their assortment of famous friends; Kate’s own flamboyant cousin; a fellow Yalie who seems to have it all figured out; and a bande of independently wealthy young men with royal lineage. As Kate rediscovers Paris and her roots there, while trying to fit into Lydia’s glamorous and complicated family, she begins to question the kindness of the people to whom she is so drawn as well as her own motives for wanting them to love her.
In compelling and sympathetic prose, Hilary Reyl perfectly captures this portrait of a precocious, ambitious young woman struggling to define herself in a vibrant world that spirals out of her control. Lessons in French is at once a love letter to Paris and the story of a young woman finding herself, her moral compass, and, finally, her true family.
Hilary Reyl has a Ph.D. in French literature from NYU with a focus on the nineteenth century and has spent several years working and studying in France. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.
“Paris is an irresistible backdrop and a proving ground in Hilary Reyl’s emotionally wise first novel. As Kate struggles to find who she truly is amid the ever-brewing storms in Schell household, her lessons are hard-won and often risky—and yet we believe and fully root for her from page one. An affecting and intelligently drawn debut.”
“Hilary Reyl has crafted the ultimate sophisticated coming-of-age-story. Not since Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce have Americans in Paris seemed so compelling. Lessons in French is not only an impossibly romantic and sensual delight, but its characters—witty and surprisingly poignant—stayed with me long after I savored the final page.”
“With its complicated love story, rich cast of accomplished and eccentric characters, and vivid evocation of late 1980’s Paris, Lessons in French is a delight from the first page. I got so caught up in the story, I almost believed I was young, living in a Parisian garret, and fluent in French.”
“French literature scholar Reyl’s first novel is rich and magnetic, a snapshot of one young woman’s life in a city at once ancient and bubbling over with life.”
"A bittersweet tale of personal growth and a paean (well deserved!) to Paris. Having lived there, Reyl should light up the City of Light."
"Any ambitious young woman who has ever been out of her depth in a new job, new city or new romance will recognize a bit of herself in Ms. Reyl's heroine."