Sunday, March 10, 2013

329 (2013 #13). Lessons in French

by Hilary Reyl

Thank goodness this book had short chapters, as reading just one or two of them each night put me to sleep.

Unfortunately, there were 61 such chapters (337 pages in all), and if I hadn't needed to write a review of the book, I never would have finished it. 

Set in Paris in 1989, the protagonist, Katie, a 20-something who actually spent time in France growing up while her father was dying, goes to work for a famous American photographer, Lydia Schell.  A Yale art graduate, Katie thinks working for Lydia will somehow help her make connections and pursue her dream of painting.  Instead, Katie performs all sorts of menial tasks for Lydia and her dysfunctional family.  It takes Katie a LONG time to come to her senses and learn anything about herself from this process.

I found nothing likeable in this book.  Katie is a wimp.  Lydia is overbearing and duplicitous.  Her husband, Clarence, and children, Portia and Joshua, are just as bad.  Katie's boyfriend Olivier (formerly Portia's) and friends Claudia, Bastien, and Christie, are vapid.  Even her cousin Etienne only seems to be in the story to highlight the growing awareness of AIDS in that era.  The book is full of name-dropping, as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Umberto Eco, and Salmon Rushdie all seem to be friends of Lydia.

Paris itself is a major character in this story, as descriptions of the city and its food abound.  Like Kate, author Hilary Reyl lived in France as a child and took a job in Paris after college.  She has a doctorate in French literature, is married to a Frenchman, and even has a French agent.  She herself describes the book as a "love letter to Paris."  Unfortunately, if you've never been to Paris, nor are particularly fond of things French, the book may hold little appeal for you.  That was the case for me.  The liberal use of untranslated French phrases did not help.

The description of the novel sounded far more interesting than the book turned out to be.  I was intrigued by Lydia being a photographer, but that was a very small part of the story.  I also think the final cover art (besides being rather ugly) is a little misleading.  The black strip with numbers on the left implies that it is a contact print from a roll of film (still used in 1989!), but it would have been more accurate to use multiple images as in a REAL contact sheet, given the multiple numbers in the black strip.

I'd recommend this book only to someone who loves Paris or France, and then only hesitantly.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[I received this advance reader's edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else - who preferably loves Paris or France - to enjoy.]

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