A work trip to France at the time of her wedding anniversary gave Ellen Sussman an idea that led to her novel French Lessons …

Three years ago I was invited to teach at the Paris Writers Conference.  I said YES and then I checked my calendar. It was my tenth anniversary, our tenth anniversary. No problem with that – bring the husband! I’d have an attic studio apartment it the Sixth Arrondissement and we’d only have to pay for one plane ticket. Anniversary in Paris!

Reality bit me in the butt about two weeks before our departure date when I got my teaching schedule. I’d be working all day. I’d be working many nights. Hey Neal – come spend our anniversary week in Paris with me – oops, I’ll never be around. But clever me, I came up with a solution.

Neal’s French is pretty good but he’s shy. I’m not shy. I also lived in Paris for five years. So even though I make a million grammatical mistakes and have the vocabulary of a four year old (I was raising babies when I lived there) I’m the one who does all the talking when we travel to Paris. Et voila – the perfect anniversary gift for Neal: a week of lessons with a French tutor in Paris!

I went on Craigslist and poked around. I found Isabelle, a French woman who offered private lessons. We emailed back and forth and I hired her because of her ingenious teaching method: she and my husband would spend every day walking the streets of Paris and speaking French. She’d correct him, teach him new vocabulary, chat with him about all things Parisienne. C’est bon!

Off to Paris, off to our attic apartment (where it was 100 degrees day and night because of the heat wave and no air conditioning), off to work! Neal, lucky Neal, went off for his French lesson. At the end of the day, I met him at a café near our apartment. He was smiling. He kept smiling. I’d never seen a smile like that before.

“You liked it?” I asked. He smiled. “She’s nice?” I asked. His smile spread across his face. And then it dawned on me. “Is she gorgeous?” I asked. “Oui,” he said. I realized what I had done: I bought my husband a beautiful young French woman for an anniversary present.

He had a fabulous week. So did I. And our marriage is strong enough that I didn’t really worry about Isabelle. But by the end of the week, I had an idea for a novel. What if that man, that very happily married man, began to feel the first pull of attraction for another woman? How could that experience transform him? What would happen when he returned home to his wife at the end of the day?

In the end, I wanted three Americans in Paris, three French tutors, a lot of twists and turns of the heart on one hot summer day. The character Jeremy, in French Lessons, is the reserved husband of a renowned actress, accompanying his wife on a film shoot in Paris. Loosley based on my trip to Paris with Neal, he’s close to my own heart.

Ellen Sussman has worked in various jobs including tennis instructor, restaurant manager, and college teacher but through all the transmutations of her life she has been writing. Her first novel, On a Night Like This, was a San Francisco Chronicle best-seller. She has taught at Pepperdine, UCLA and Rutgers University.


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