Thursday, September 17, 2020

Book 251: The Pleasing Hour

"They had forgotten me, and I felt snug and warm in my blanket of incomprehension. I had always wanted to go to France to learn the language, but instead I’d come and lost my own. Finally I was free of the need to explain anything to anyone."

Dates read: July 24-27, 2018

Rating: 5/10

It can be difficult to see your own family objectively. Many families have a level of dysfunction that seems normal from the inside, but if you were to see someone else's family doing the same thing would seem maladaptive. That doesn't necessarily mean the people in that family are unhappy, though. No one's family is perfect, and if it's not one weird pattern of behavior, it's another. Finding a balance where personality quirks are able to be negotiated and worked out with each other is the important thing.

The Trivot family, living on a houseboat in Paris, looks happy from the outside in Lily King's debut novel The Pleasing Hour. A beautiful mother, Nicole, a successful father, Marc, and three fundamentally good children: lovely teenage Odile, high-spirited Lola, and serious Guillame. Every year, there's a new jeune fille who works as an au pair, helping with the kids and around the house, and this year, it's 19 year-old American Rosie. Usually, the young women in her position are studying at the Sorbonne, perfecting already skilled French, enjoying a social life untethered to the "real world" they'll return to at the end of the year. But Rosie is different. She's clumsy with the language, not attending school, and spends most of her off-duty time in her small bedroom. What drove her to France was not an appetite for adventure, but escape from a situation she couldn't face.

Not long before she arrived, Rosie had a child, and gave him up to the older sister who basically raised her. She's still working through that experience when she comes into the Trivot household, where the glossy surface conceals plenty of problems underneath: haughty Nicole and sheepish Marc are disconnected, and the kids each have their own struggles. Rosie becomes more integrated into their lives, finding some sense of security, before a trip to Spain unsettles everything.

One of the major themes of the book, and one that really resonated with me, is language: the power of fluency and the way it can both bring people together when it's shared and isolate them when it's not. Rosie arrives speaking poor French, setting her apart from the family, and even as her proficiency increases to the point where she feels comfortable speaking it in most situations and to everyone else in the household, she fears Nicole's ability to make her feel wrong. Nicole herself tries to bury the Provencal accent that marks her as a non-native Parisian. And the way Rosie sees herself and is seen by the Trivots shifts when they go to Spain and she has the most command of Spanish. Anyone who's ever tried to learn a language, or gone someplace where they didn't speak the primary one well, knows how isolating it can be when you don't understand it, how frustrating it can be to sort-of understand, but be unable to clearly make yourself understood, the thrill of being able to communicate.

While I found that particular thematic element of the book compelling, as a whole I'll admit it was just okay for me. It is a debut, and though it's the promising kind (King's prose is strong, and she shows flashes of brilliance of characterization), it doesn't seem quite sure of what exactly it's trying to say or do as a whole. We get in-depth looks at the family's children, and go back in time to learn about Nicole's parents and childhood, but get no insight into her as an adult or into Marc at all. The plot meanders, and important threads of narrative, like Rosie's emotional processing of her pregnancy and surrender of her child, didn't feel like they went anywhere. It's not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not particularly good either. If what you've read makes you interested, you won't be wasting your time in picking up the book, but you won't really be missing out on anything if you don't.

One year ago, I was reading: Empire Falls

Two years ago, I was reading: The Luminaries

Three years ago, I was reading: Duel with the Devil

Four years ago, I was reading: Neon Green

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