Three Americans – an expat mom with two small children, a bereaved French teacher and the husband of a film star – spend a day traipsing through Paris with their French tutors.The lessons they learn, however, have little to do with language and everything to do with life and love. Such is the premise of Ellen Sussman’s second novel, French Lessons.
Released in early July, the book is steadily climbing the bestseller charts – and with good reason. This is one of those “can’t put it down” novels built around compelling characters in a city that has its own vast repertoire of stories. In fact, the author has managed to make the French capital the third dominant character in each of the three stories she weaves.
The New Jersey-born writer found inspiration not just during her five years living in Paris with her first husband and two small daughters, but in one particular subsequent visit to the city, something she shares in this exclusive interview.
You lived in Paris for five years. So how much of your experience informed the characters that make up this book?
All of it! I’m not Riley, but I was raising two babies while living in Paris. (I did not have a hot French tutor!) I could bring so much of my experience to the fictional world by creating a character who walked around town with one kid in the snugli and one in the stroller. I’m not Josie, but I was struggling with grief for a time while I was in Paris – I could infuse her character with some of my emotional material. I’m not Jeremy but I hired a French tutor for my husband on a recent trip to Paris – yep, she turned out to be gorgeous! Who the hell gives her husband a beautiful French woman for an anniversary gift?! Luckily, my husband didn’t fall in love (I hope!) but I got a chance to create that fictional world out of one that’s pretty familiar to me.
I have to add that every day I spent in Paris during my five years there ended up on the pages of FRENCH LESSONS. It’s in every description of the streets, the markets, the cafés, the parks – it’s my Paris.
You chose a few very distinctive areas of Paris to highlight on both sides of the Seine. They’re great little walking tours our readers can follow, in fact. Were these areas that you felt drawn to as a writer and/or a visitor to Paris?
They’re areas that I was drawn to when I lived there and that I return to again and again. I don’t think I’ve ever visited Paris without spending a day walking along the Seine. It’s pure magic, regardless of weather or season.
Before I submitted the novel to my agent, I decided I had to go back to Paris to make sure I had the walking tours right. (business trip!) My husband and I spent three days walking the exact routes that each set of characters takes. It’s been a long time since I lived in Paris – I had some things way wrong. For instance, the Museum of Natural History was completely remodeled many years ago – my manuscript described the old musty, smelly museum! I had to rewrite that section to get it right.
You have three American characters (Josie, Riley and Jeremy) who have very distinctive viewpoints on the city (indifferent, hate, appreciative), but all develop a romantic/sexual attachment—however temporary—to their French tutors. Do you think this is something that Paris inspires in people? Is it the language, the environment or the culture that draws out these feelings in your characters and people in general?
I do think that Paris makes us fall in love. It’s such a romantic city – and wherever you look, people are smooching! The beauty of the city, the people, the language – it all makes us yearn for love. I wanted my characters to be drawn to their tutors as they search for something missing in their own lives. It’s not always love or sex that they’re looking for – but that pull of desire helps them find what they need.
Then you’ve created three exceptionally French characters (Nico, Philippe and Chantal), the tutors who spend this one day with their American students. The two male tutors are focused on their students with romance or sex in mind, while the female tutor doesn’t show any hint of attraction to her male student. Was this a deliberate choice for you? Do you think the male Parisian is more likely to seek that kind of attachment with a foreign woman than the female Parisian?
I think Chantal is actually drawn to Jeremy in a surprising way. She loves his love for his wife (even as he’s fantasizing about being with her) – she’s looking for something grounded and he seems to have that. Nico and Philippe are so different – one looks for love and the other for sex (though he confuses sex and love). Man, is it complicated! But to answer your question, I do think Parisian men are pretty direct with women – if they like what they see, they go for it. Women seem to be less direct.
Riley, the American woman who hates Paris, is an unhappy expat in an unhappy marriage to her American corporate executive husband and seems unwilling to learn the language. She begins the day really hating Paris. But by the end of her story, a very hot sexual rendezvous seems to finally bring about an appreciation for the city. So, do you think that Paris is a city that oozes sex?
Yes! Don’t you? Riley’s sexual encounter wakes her up – in many ways – to the beauty of the city. It also wakes her up to what matters in her life. I dare anyone to spend time in Paris and remain untouched by the city’s erotic charms!
Do you think the romance of Paris has to have a sexual undertone to it?
No – that’s just part of a complicated experience. Maybe the romance of Paris makes us yearn for something. The key is the emotional weight of that – what it means to experience desire.
You wove one very public “nude scene” through all the characters’ stories, an experience they all share, even though they don’t know it. The Americans in the story reacted with varied degrees of shock and embarrassment, while the Parisians found it inspirational and artistic. Is this something you’ve noticed during your time in Paris?
Yes! I was surprised by the nudity in advertisements in Paris – on the streets, in the metro, in movies. When American friends of ours would visit they would all comment on that. Parisians barely even notice. I imagined the scene that is filmed on the bridge – it didn’t really happen. But I can easily imagine those two very different responses.
Every character in the book has committed “adultery” – except for one who is seriously contemplating it. The American characters seem tortured by it while the French ones are far more blasé. Do you think that’s because the French tend to separate sex and romance?
Yes! (Somehow I think you know Paris very well.) It took me some time to understand how differently our two cultures view affairs. We’re surely at two opposite ends of the spectrum.
What is it that you hope the reader takes away from the book after reading it?
I hope they book a flight to Paris! And I hope they spend some time thinking about thosecharacters, about Paris, about the complicated ways in which we deal with love and loss.
So, about Paris… What do you love about it?
I love street life in Paris. I could walk all day; I could sit in a café and spend a day watching the city walk by. It’s so full of life and beauty.
What do you not love about it?
Getting a serviceman to come out and fix a washing machine or TV or something was always hell. Is that still true?
Do you have a favorite part (or parts) of the city? Any special places you visit every time you’re there? Restaurants? Shops?
I love Parc Monceau. My kids went to school there and I go back every time. I love the Luxemborg Gardens, rue Mouffetard, and the Marais. I find new restaurants every time I go – and I prefer the small unknown gem rather than Michelon-starred places.
Can you share one of your secrets about Paris with our readers?