Monday, July 25, 2011

Fiction: French Lessons by Ellen Sussman

I’ve been a fan of author Ellen Sussman since the publication of her debut novel, On A Night Like This. That book, though exceedingly well reviewed and seemingly deeply enjoyed by both critics and fans, never really got the attention it deserved. That’s why it’s been refreshing to watch Sussman’s second novel, French Lessons (Ballantine), be received with a fair amount of fanfare and to see it zooming up the charts. And all of this despite a paperback original publication. But like her debut, French Lessons surprises on every level. One expects a single dimensional romp. Think Bridget Jones or just about any film starring Rene Zellweger. But once there, deeply engrossed between those covers, you discover anything but. Sussman is a force to be reckoned with. If only we can get the rest of the world to understand.

Three very different Americans traipse around the City of Lights on the same day with different French tutors. But the learning of a language becomes secondary to each of them -- a movie star’s husband, a neglected wife and a pregnant French woman -- as they each begin to find answers to unasked questions as the day progresses.

You see? Stated baldly in this way, the story sounds less than what it is and, in an unexpected way, slightly more. Sussman has set herself a challenging task here, and pulls it off neatly. The story takes place on a single Parisian day so it’s not surprising that this slender book is mostly character driven.

Readers of a delicate disposition should take note: Sussman, also the author of the non-fiction works Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, should be aware that French Lessons includes some fairly steamy scenes. If you object to that sort of writing as part of story, you might want to give this one a miss. For the rest of us, though, French Lessons is a wise and witty love story and a thoughtful exploration of craft.



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