This novel popped up when I was doing an Amazon search for Hallie Rubenhold, because I thoroughly enjoyed her historical account of the Scandalous Lady W. (See my earlier post on that book here.) If you are looking for a fun summer read to keep you company in your beach chair or on your couch, or if you have finished streaming season 2 of The Crown on Netflix and need something else to fill your time with, The French Lesson is a pretty good choice; you could definitely do worse.
Set during the French Revolution, we follow our heroine, Henrietta Lightfoot as she follows her lover to Paris in 1792, against his wishes and advice. Henrietta, I must say, is a little bit annoying in her willful obtuseness. I would not go so far as to say that she is an unreliable narrator, but she is awfully naive for a courtesan, or at least she pretends to be. I wasn’t sure the whole way through whether she didn’t realize what was going on or she was playing along for reasons of her own, but at the end that will become apparent, dear reader.
Henrietta fails to find her lover, as he is working undercover as a spy–no spoilers here, I promise this is apparent to the reader from the outset–and she takes refuge with Grace Dalrymple Elliot, notorious mistress of the Duc d”Orleans, among others, and spy for Royalists during The Terror. With Grace’s help, Henrietta enters the household of Orleans and befriends his current mistress, Madame de Buffon.
Adventures and intrigue ensue…
The French Lesson is a quick, easy, and enjoyable read for those who like historical fiction. The characters are fairly well drawn, the plot is fast moving, and in the end everything is tied up rather neatly. My only real complaint is that Henrietta is a little too good to be true, as is her paramour, but that is to be expected in romance fiction.
If your book club decides to read The French Lesson, here are a few questions for discussion:
- Why does Henrietta decide to ignore Allenham’s instructions for her to remain in Brussels? Do you think she has other reasons than those she states?
- Why does Henrietta so easily fall prey to Savill? Shouldn’t she have been a little more streetwise, considering her time among the demimonde?
- A historical truth is that a woman’s wealth was often in her possessions, such as jewelry, clothing, shoes, etc. Why is Henrietta so quick to abandon her only money at the hotel? Why did she bring it in the first place? Why not leave it in Brussels?
- Do you like Henrietta? Would you be friends with her? What about Mrs. Elliot? Would you have been friends with her? Why or why not?
- Madame de Buffon is a real historical person, as is Mrs. Elliot and the Duc d”Orleans. Do you think Rubenhold did a good job weaving her story through the real life events and people? Why or why not?
- Did you see the ending coming? If you were writing the ending of this book, how would you have worked it out?