Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lessons in French by Hilary Reyl

Paris is not a city that attracts me, yet it does fascinate me. It's not a place I long to go (one brief visit in the 1970's has allowed me to say I've been there), but it's a city I do love to read about. Whether historical, twentieth century, or current, the nuances of culture never cease to give much to contemplate. Hilary Reyl has managed to capture a believable Paris of 1989-90 and present it to her readers, along with tasty morsels of the time: the fall of the Berlin Wall, Salman Rushdie (Satanic Verses era), how Parisian women really stay thin, kirs, a compelling circle of characters, and of course, cuisine.

The story is billed loosely as a coming of age novel, which really sells it short, because I found it to be a fascinating character study, with Paris itself one of the characters to study. Kate, a recent Yale graduate, has the opportunity to work as the assistant to Lydia, a famous American photographer, living in Paris. Kate had lived briefly in Paris as a girl, and speaks the language beautifully. While the job bubbles with opportunities to mix with the famous, and be a part of a cutting edge culture, Lydia and her family serve up a somewhat toxic brew of personal pathologies and pathos. Kate must find a balance as well as find herself. She still has family in the city, has a group of young aristocrats and royals she runs with, as well as the conflicted personalities that come her way, courtesy of Lydia's family.

There were times when Kate's hormones led her astray, where I wanted to give her a shake to help her think straight, but that's part of what coming of age is all about. The thing that kept me glued to the pages here were the glimpses of Paris that emerged, the slices of life not known to those who have only visited, (whether in person or via a book) -- a little of the underbelly, so to speak. It rang so true that I feel certain Reyl knows her stuff, and weaves it in a clear, confident manner, into the story of Kate and her time in Paris.

Thank you to LibraryThing's Early Reviewer Program and the publisher for sending me this AR copy to read. The book comes out March 5, 2013.

(3.5 rounded up to 4 stars)

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