The Pleasing Hourby Lily King
“Splendid . . . Powerful . . . so assured that it’s hard to believe the book is [King’s] debut.” —Jacqueline Carey, The New York Times Book Review
The first novel from a new literary voice brimming with sensitivity and lyricism, The Pleasing Hour is the story of Rosie, an American au pair in Europe whose coming-of-age defies all our usual conceptions of naïveté and experience.
Every autumn, on a day called la rentrée, hundreds of filles descend upon Paris to move in with Parisian families and care for the children. They drink in the glamorous culture, pursue romance and the perfect accent. But Rosie is different; when she comes to live with the Tivots on their houseboat in Paris, she is fleeing an unspeakable loss that has left her hollow and longing for family.
As Rosie awkwardly grasps for the French words to communicate with the Tivots, she longs for a piece of common ground with Nicole, the cool, distant, and beautifully polished mother of the three children she cares for. Rosie’s bond with Marc, the father of the household, develops almost too naturally, and the children make their way so deep inside her heart, she can practically read their thoughts. But when Lola, the middle child, begins to suspect too close an attachment between her au pair and her father, Rosie is alerted to her trespass within the family and moves to the south of France to care for Nicole’s elderly guardian, the storyteller of the family’s secrets.
As the narrative slides effortlessly into the warm light of the French countryside, a tapestry is woven between a past darkened by war and betrayals and a present haunted by the weight of that legacy. Soon Rosie understands the tragic losses behind Nicole’s austere demeanor and sees that the two of them have more in common than she believed.
Demonstrating a wise understanding of love and the complicated dynamics of family, with all its fierceness and delicacy, Lily King delivers a highly accomplished novel.
“Delightful . . . This remarkably well-written book will please you with its funny and sad tale of cultural differences, love, betrayal and motherhood. . . . Introduces a very talented writer of great promise.” —Lelia Ruckenstein, The Washington Post Book World
“Written with quiet, lyric forcefulness, The Pleasing Hour is an impressive debut from a writer who knows how to uncover the saving impulses of the heart.” —Lisa Shea, Elle
“King’s economy with detail is perfectly calibrated to the tension created by Rosie’s language deficit, cultural discomfort and emotional isolation. . . . Though she tells lean stories, King can brush lush descriptions, with majestic colors and vivid, fleeting pleasures.” —Wingate Packard, The Seattle Times
“Lily King’s splendid new novel consists of one beginning after another, all so assured that it’s hard to believe the book itself is her debut.” —Jacqueline Carey, The New York Times Book Review
“Here, as with a palimpsest, each new form of pleasing delineated by the author is made more complex by the imprint of the last.” —The New Yorker
“Beautifully wrought”what people do to each other and the legacies they leave are King’s central subjects, and in her deft hands they’re explored in complicated, ambitious ways that leave us feeling as if we’ve become fluent in a foreign language.” —Karen Shepard, USA Today
“King brings alive a palette of colorful and robust characters that might have been collected from an afternoon sidewalk café in Provence. . . . This is a rich first novel about families lost and found from a promising writer with an ear for the kind of language—language from the heart, that touches deeply.” —Ron Frascell, The Christian Science Monitor
“Well written, absorbing”. She is an accomplished stylist, repeatedly demonstrating a fine control of her complicated structure, which zigzags in time. . . . An altogether pleasing debut.” —Heller McAlpin, Newsday
“The Pleasing Hour is a beautiful, sad novel that leaves a lasting impression.” —Julian Garey, New Woman
“Brace yourself—The Pleasing Hour is an intense novel, full of secrets and complicated situations.” —Seventeen
“King delivers an emotionally suspenseful story in language nearly as exquisite as the setting itself . . . The Pleasing Hour, like all intersections at which lives converge, belongs to more than one person—but ultimately it is Rosie whose emotional evolution we celebrate, and with it the arrival of lily King to the world of bright new literary voices.” —Jessica Treadway, Ploughshares
“A literary first novel of impressive layering and complexity, the kind of debut you might expect from the winner of the Raymond Carver Prize for fiction.” —Tim Lemire, Tab (Boston)
“In gentle, elegant prose, first novelist King . . . has taken some unusual elements and worked them into a believable, beautifully etched tale of people who, scarred by their past, are now trying to get it right.” —Library Journal
“Expertly constructed, full of surprises, superbly paced, and sweetly sad, King’s book hardly reads like a first novel . . . the seamless integration of theme, plot and voice produces a rare sense of intimacy.” —Publishers Weekly
“With longing and sweetness, this subtle and gorgeously crafted novel takes us into a tangle of family affections’the play of French against American, of fresh hurts against old but still aching ones, of lovers and mothers, is gently woven in language of great purity.” —Booklist
“Intriguing . . . the central character’s complexity and many of the descriptive details are pleasing.” —Kirkus Reviews
“This is a deft and moving novel, with grace notes and shocks of recognition on every page. Elegant, sensual and, above all, aware, it offers a stunningly dramatic presentation of ambivalences and reconciliations. You feel wisdom in these sentences, and care for the truth.” —Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body
“This is a lovely book, elegant and wise, full of illuminations about France, and families, and love.” —Roxana Robinson, author of This Is My Daughter and Summer Light
“Lily King has written a luminous first novel. Her psychology is original and subtle, her mise en scene perfect, her deft and lovely language and gentle humor irresistible. The Pleasing Hour is a find, and a joy.” —Beth Gutcheon, author of Saying Grace and Five Fortunes
“In this lovely, subtle debut novel, Lily King writes with delicacy and wisdom of inner and outer lives, of exclusion, loneliness, and survival. The music of her writing is a deliciousness in itself. She sees with a rare discernment, an insight as profound and surprising as it is graceful and forgiving, and understands the complex structures invented by the will to love. In The Pleasing Hour, she imbues love’s insistent forms—its misbegotten, maternal, and romantic powers—with a poignancy that enchants.” —Alice Fulton, author of Sensual Math
A Book Sense 76 Selection
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
Plaire is not a wealthy town. It is not one of those immaculate, romantic villages described in books about the south of France. Its streets are not made of cobblestones or clogged with visitors in the hot months. It does not have red cliffs, or châteaux, or the carapace of a fortress. The churches are unremarkable, the café terraces viewless. In the afternoon the narrow streets grow sinister, blackened by enormous shadows with clawed edges that slowly scale the pitted stucco walls. Half-dead ivy creeps down to meet them. Even at two o’clock on a bright spring day, you can turn down one of those streets and all light and heat will be gone. You will have to wait until your eyes have adjusted to move on. Through the slats of closed green shutters above, you can hear music or the sound of water in a basin or heavy plates being stacked or unstacked. The grocery bags will start to cut into your fingers, and the two miles back will seem, from that dark street, unachievable.
But once you reach the valley, and Lucie Quenelle’s farmhouse appears on the next rise, there seem to be seven suns stretching across the sky, each one celebrating your return.
She is waiting for me in the garden. I can see her straw hat twitching as she swats at something. At the sound of my sandals through the grass, a smile appears just below the hat’s brim. It does not feel like penitence to be here with this old woman, though I know it should.
Once she sets me to work on the table grapes with her, it doesn’t take her long to start in with more questions. She has so many, mostly about Nicole.
“She was very careful as a child, deliberate. Is she still?”
“Yes.” I try to be curt, entirely uninterested.
“And so equable.”
“Perhaps you are too young to know exactly what I mean.”
“Perhaps,” I say, feeling too old to argue.
She’s teaching me how to rewire the trunks of the vines to their posts. Beside her quick spotted hands, mine work clumsily.
“Would you say she’s happy, Nicole? Would you say she married the right man?”
“I don’t know.” But she wants more. She will not stop until she’s wrung me dry. “He’s not a man I would have married,” I add.
I can’t think of one word to throw her off.
“It’s hard to pinpoint, isn’t it?” she says, furrowing her entire face. “But there’s something about this Marc Tivot. A man should never make you feel old.”
“She looks half her age,” I say, deliberately misunderstanding, veering away. “She’s in good shape. She’s healthy, nimble—”
“Nimble! Where did you learn a word like nimble? Sometimes you surprise me with the words you know. How is it that you can have such an extensive vocabulary but absolutely no memory for the definite articles?”
“I don’t know. It’s just a block I have,” I say, embarrassed my errors have been noticed already.
Nicole’s daughter, Lola, always insisted it was obvious. Look, she said, running to the table she had just set, a knife is masculine and a spoon is feminine. Look at them. You can just tell. Look at this plate. It’s a girl’s face. And this glass, it’s a man. Can’t you see it? Lola had bangs and a birthmark on her ring finger and pronounced my name, Rosie, with the best unrolled r in the family.
“Here. Not so tight. Please,” she says with sudden impatience. “You’re strangling the poor thing. And look down here. His roots are being pulled up.”
“Sorry.” I let go the vine.
“I love this earth.” She squeezes a fistful and, when she releases it, it keeps the hollows of her fingers and the sharp peaks between them. I feel her smiling, waiting for me to look up. But I can’t receive her at times: her pale eyes, her pressed white collar and the triangle of scaled skin it reveals, her nimble hands working the earth. Leste. All my words lead back to that family.
Marc called me nimble during my first week in Paris when I caught the glass at dinner. Their son had knocked it hard off the edge, reaching for the lemon syrup, and I caught it, a full glass of water falling from the table. Marc called me leste and the whole family looked at me, everyone but Nicole, like I might work miracles.
“Look at you. You’re freezing,” she says, leaving a hand on my bare leg. “The body is so beautiful when it’s young. Enjoy it, Rosie.”
But I can’t feel anything—not her withered hand or the earth she loves or the suns that are still blazing above us—and I know if there’s one thing I ache to abandon it is my body.
“You are eighteen, nineteen?”
“What on earth could make a child of nineteen so . . .” She studies me for a word that thankfully never comes. “When I was nineteen,” she continues, “we moved here, to Plaire. Nicole’s family lived right up there, through those trees, which in those days weren’t so high. You could see their house, from here, and the sun, as it fell below those mountains. But everything’s higher now. Or maybe I’ve shrunk. I don’t know what’s different today about the sun and the air, but then the sky would go purple sometimes—not purple, exactly, but mauve. That’s what Nicole’s mother called it.”
“You knew her mother?” It is an odd image, Nicole as a child.
“She was seventeen years younger than me, but she ended up being the closest friend I ever had. She told me that when she was a little girl she’d sit on her grandfather’s porch in Roussillon and have tea and cakes during the mauve hour. I never hear the word mauve without thinking of her, but the light’s changed since then. Anyway, I think it’s probably time.”
“But we’ve done quite a lot today. Thank you.”
She is giving me room, board, and two hundred francs a week, but she has thanked me every evening of the three weeks that I’ve been here.
We put the tools and the wire back in the broken basket and follow the path through the roses to the back door. She takes my arm on the steps for balance. “Ah,” she says. “Can’t you smell the stew? You were right to put in that extra basil.” She gives my arm a good tug as if she might be falling, then casts off from me altogether as we enter the house.
After dinner I will write my sister a one-sentence postcard with no return address: Walked the path van Gogh walked with his bloody ear. It’s a lie—a place Lucie Quenelle has told me about farther south.
In the New Hampshire house with the red door—and the gold slot into which these cards are dropped—live my sister, her husband, and the baby I gave them. All I can hope is when that child has words he will tell them the things I cannot. Perhaps my whole life here in France will spill out of his mouth.
I showed up last fall at 121 Port de Suffren the day before the rentrée, the day that all French children return to school. Perhaps in Paris alone that day there were ten or eleven thousand other young foreign women showing up on doorsteps, buzzing intercoms, calling from phone booths for the door code they were not given, taking the place and the room of the summer girl who had just vacated. I never became part of that network of women, but I saw them everywhere: at tennis lessons, in doctors’ offices, beneath the wide arches of private schools. Wherever I was sent, so were they.
They worked in clusters, met at parks, flicked their cigarettes into the sandbox, kept a loose eye on the kids. They went out at night. They ordered jugs of sangria in small bars packed with foreign women and the men who wanted to meet them. They complained about the families and traded stories of the condescension, the false accusations, the humiliation. They laughed and laughed. They dated Frenchmen and rolled their eyes. Then they fell in love. They told each other everything, rarely in their own language. Sometimes they quit their jobs and got new ones through their agencies. Always broke, they lent each other money. They missed their boyfriends back home. They broke up with their boyfriends back home, succinctly on the phone, digressively through the mail. They sneaked men back to their maids’ rooms on the top floor of their buildings, then couldn’t get rid of them. They spoke French better and better, with the intent of becoming translators, hotel managers, tour guides, diplomats. French was their third or fourth language. They read Proust or de Beauvoir or Duras and decorated their rooms with prints of Manet, Pissaro, and Gauguin. They mocked tourists who tried to speak French and helped the ones who didn’t. They went home for the holidays, then returned to find the Pantheon buried in snow. They studied more French. They were perpetually studying French. By spring, there was nothing left about the kids that was endearing, nothing left about the parents that was a mystery. But they had gotten what they wanted: the words, the vowels and the consonants, the idioms and the intonations that could be gotten only in Paris. They had ripped the tongues from these families and wanted nothing more. They were glad it was nearly time to go. They detached themselves easily at the end of their year, a precise Parisian fluency accomplished, lives ahead of them. If they remembered, they sent a Christmas card each year until they knew their face had lost its definition in the long parade of other foreign girls who had shown up on that doorstep on the eve of the rentrée.
I should have been one of them: guarded, flinchless. I should have wanted only a tongue, not safety, not solace. A family will rarely give you those—not your own, not anybody’s.
No one had told me it was a houseboat. I approached the long string of them from the stern, reading each name loudly in my head as I passed. Vanesa was a forest of squat pines planted in boxes, so many you couldn’t see any part of the boat within. La Liberté was utterly bare with every window boarded up. La Chienne was painted fire-engine red and its deck cluttered with several pairs of shoes, a few rusted bicycles, and an overcrowded clothesline that stretched bow to stern, the middle sagging on the roof of the cabin and on the backs of the two dogs sleeping there.
On La Sequana, which was sleek and spare, Nicole stood in the black bottom of a bikini.
I was not used to seeing other breasts. At school, girls had changed facing their lockers, and on overnights they slipped their bras off beneath a nightgown. My sister’s breasts were the only ones I knew, and they were the same as mine. But Nicole’s were utterly different: perfectly conical and nearly wholly enveloped by dark brown areolas.
She stood on deck, brushing Odile’s hair, which rose magically in the breezeless air each time it was released from the bristles. At sixteen, Odile was already a head taller than her mother and had to bend her knees while bracing herself on the railing and grimacing to the rhythm of the hard strokes. She wore a neon-green one-piece. I saw them before they saw me: Nicole jockey-like, quick, and deliberate, her small body in perfect proportion; Odile more languid and willowy but erratic. She flung an arm back toward her mother for hurting her.
Lola, younger by four years, sat waiting on the stoop of the short ramp, fully dressed. She had her head craned in the opposite direction, expecting me in a taxi. Then she heard my step and turned.
“Ah, elle est lé!”
I didn’t expect her French. Lola’s face was so open and her mouth so wide and unpuckered that I didn’t expect French to come out of it. It was always a surprise to me, every time, Lola’s French.
Her little brother, Guillaume, in swimming trunks too long for his nine-year-old legs, launched himself from the chaise longue toward me. Immediately he was disappointed, which I knew from the expression of expectation that didn’t change, as if I might turn into someone else if he could just get close enough. He’d bet his friend Arnaud that his American jeune fille would be prettier than Arnaud’s new Norwegian one. But I was big and unspectacular, nothing like the cinema samples, and he’d have to give back Arnaud’s fountain pen.
I disrupted everything briefly.
The family lined up to kiss me. With Guillaume and then Odile, I aimed for the wrong cheek and ended up butting noses with Guillaume and nearly kissing Odile on the lips, which seemed to horrify her and her profound sense of propriety. Before her turn, Lola told me, “Right cheek first,” which clarified everything, and I was prepared for Nicole. No one else seemed to be bothered that Nicole wore no shirt. As we kissed, I smelled makeup and removers, nail polish and toothpaste, and the lingering odor of her younger children—sour milk and butter cookies. The heat had brought to the surface of her skin all of these scents that I never again smelled so strongly, though I never thought of Nicole again without them, just as I never forgot the shape of her breasts beneath her clothes.
Nicole found her silk shirt on Guillaume’s chair mashed into a pillow and scolded him in a singsong voice that just made him grin at her. She asked me a few polite questions, which I answered with the simplest expressions I knew. There was something about Nicole, the swift strokes with Odile’s brush and now the same movement with her hand to rid the silk of wrinkles, that told me immediately that she was not a person to tolerate mistakes, and I suspected that my four years of textbook French would not hold out for very long.
I had the feeling, from the moment Nicole glanced up and saw me, that I had either arrived too late or too early in the afternoon. There was something distinctly inconvenient about me, which turned out to be a feeling that persisted for several months. It could disappear for long stretches of time, then resurface inexplicably one day as I walked into the kitchen with her dry cleaning or into the living room to call her kids to dinner. She would look at me with that same vague surprise, that attempt to veil vexation. During those first months, no matter how close I came to feel to that family, that look of Nicole’s could cast me straight back out to that initial moment on the deck when I wondered if I was too early or too late to begin my life with them.
I followed her down the steep stairs into the house. I’d never been on a houseboat before or been to Paris or spoken French outside a classroom. A house on a boat on a river in France. A house on a boat on a river in France. It took a tune in my head as we clomped down the steps and I thought someday I’d sing it to Lola, who liked me already, which I knew by the way she watched beside me with her seal face, her round brown eyes, and hopeful mouth, watching for my reaction to this new world, her world. I wondered if she knew any English, if she would understand house or boat or river. Already I felt that if I said those words—or any words—Lola would understand them all.
I was actually the only one who clomped. Lola bounced and Nicole trotted, gold thongs swatting her heels as she led me down a corridor and pointed without stopping to the children’s rooms, bright with rugs, posters, and comforter covers. The beige hallway carpet bled into my room at the end, where there was no vestige of the many girls who’d come before me, only a single bed covered in a washed-out floral fabric that appeared more vividly beneath the glass of the dressing table and on the pillows of the ottoman in the corner. I glanced at this corner placidly, as if I’d often had an ottoman in my bedroom.
Nicole showed me how to open the window and told me I was not to spill in the room or use nails on the walls or eat meals anywhere but in the kitchen. Then she made me open the window myself and repeat back to her the negative commands she’d given. I couldn’t remember some of the words she’d used. My comprehension was still way ahead of my recall. Nicole’s face said she’d done this a thousand times with the same result. For her I was just another fille marking another year, another rentrée.
Lola pleaded my case. “Don’t worry, Maman. She’s understood you.” But Nicole looked one last time at the room, as if she’d never recognize it again, and led Lola away to let me unpack.
But Lola and Guillaume were back in my room in a few minutes to model their back-to-school clothes. Lola’s were boyish, mostly jeans and soft cotton shirts, while Guillaume’s were for a child far younger: wool shorts with tall socks, a shirt with a scalloped collar, plaid overalls. I showed them the pieces of magenta and chartreuse paper I found in a dresser drawer, and they told me it was Sigrid’s from two years ago. Because I couldn’t understand all of their simultaneous explanations, they resorted to fingers that became scissors, then pulled me into each of their rooms to show me the framed cutouts on their walls.
“And the other girls. How many?” I was wary, in those early days, of full sentences.
“Millions,” Lola said, letting her arms flail. “Thirty or forty?” She looked at her brother for verification. She was a spindly, awkward girl in the most awkward stage of her life. I knew from watching her that people had begun to tell her to calm down, to lower her voice, to keep her arms at her side.
“More,” Guillaume said.
Their fingers became full of names.
“Pilar!” Lola stopped. “Remember her? She wore Maman’s clothes when she wasn’t home.”
“But Tonia was worse,” Guillaume said. “She called Turkey every night and the bill was five thousand francs and she had to work six months for nothing. She cried a lot.”
They went through the long list: Vibeke the witch, Begonia the poet, Hélène the belcher. They spent awhile debating if it was Ella or Elsa who ate her cigarettes after she smoked them.
“And me, what?” I finally dared ask.
“You mean what will we say?”
I nodded. Lola shrugged and said something I wasn’t sure was a word.
She repeated it. “Chais pas.”
“What does it mean?”
“Chais pas?” She seemed disappointed, as if she’d had higher hopes for me. “Je ne sais pas.”
“Chais pas.” I practiced. “Chais pas.”
“How do you say it in English?”
“I don’t know,” I said slowly.
But she was impatient. “I know, but how do you say it fast?”
“Dunno,” Lola said, in that precise accent she had whenever she repeated me.
“Dunno,” Guillaume tried.
“Dunno,” I repeated.
“Good,” I said, but it was a lie to stop the game short and he knew it.
“I don’t need to learn English. I’m going to be a priest.”
“A priest?” I said, trying to say the word prétre as beautifully as he had and failing.
“We’ll say that you aren’t very stylish—I’m not either—but that you’re very nice,” Lola said.
“That you’re disorganized.” Guillaume looked at my open suitcase and all the balled clothing.
“And that you have a pretty smile.”
“And that you’re a little fat.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s true.”
“But you’re smaller here.” She poked her leg. “And here.” She touched her cheek. “And it’s very smooth. Look at Guillaume. He already has two boutons and he’s only nine.”
Though I suspected what Lola meant, I feigned confusion to diffuse a moment I thought would be embarrassing to Guillaume. But he showed me the pimples on his chin with pride.
Guillaume left then, but Lola stayed and watched me empty my suitcase. Even as I put things in drawers for the first time, I imagined Lola could already see me packing to go. Lola would treat me kindly, I thought, sometimes even with affection, as if I were a surprisingly pleasant stranger on a long train journey, then bid me farewell, a separation she had always expected and had been through dozens of times before. I felt her watching me, sizing me up against the other faces and suitcases and accents. I figured by now Lola knew exactly how much of herself to give, the extent of the attachment she could afford. What I forgot is that Lola was a child, and no matter how polite and contained and wise she seemed, she did not live within a world of learned boundaries, of hesitation and self-protection, of moderation and mitigation, of meting out and holding back. She lived wholly, fastidiously, and devoutly in the present.
That night we went out for pizza. Since the fille was not technically due to start working until the next day, this pizza treat was a tradition in the family on the eve of the rentrée.
We took a large table in the middle of the restaurant. It became clear then that Odile was out of my domain. She and her mother sat at one end, only a few feet away but worlds apart from the rest of us, thick in quiet discussion, of which I could understand not one word. Eventually Odile held her sleeve up to her mother, who examined it carefully before resuming conversation. After that I could understand a few things: soie, jupe, taille.
Guillaume wanted to talk about clothes too. He asked me if I liked his T-shirt that said boston baisball red socs written in a circle around a football and a flat bat. I nodded, then noticed the streaks of white scarring on his arms and hands.
He saw me looking and said something too quickly. Lola translated. “He almost died once.”
Nicole leapt out of her conversation to squelch the topic immediately with two words: “Lola. Non.” And that was the end of it.
Guillaume ate his dessert on his mother’s lap. Despite the infantile position, his voice instantly changed in rhythm and timbre and became as adultlike and incomprehensible as the other two. Only Lola remained at my level, speaking to me slowly about the unfamiliar cartoon figures that appeared on the paper place mats.
As we walked back along the quai, night had not yet fallen, though it must have been close to nine. The sky was pale green and starless. The river water below seemed not a color but a kind of light, a wan timid light that flickered and then disappeared as a Bateau Mouche slid through with its gaudy necklace of spotlights, inducing a false darkness and shattering the surface of glass.
Lola stayed behind, next to me, though I’d run out of words. I was thinking This is Paris, this is Paris, but now that I was finally here I could feel it no more than if I had been walking down a cinema aisle with screens on all sides.
When we reached the barge and filed down the narrow stairwell, the children scattered. Guillaume went straight to the TV in the living room, Lola to her bedroom, and Odile to the telephone in the study. The boat seemed so small from the street, but down inside it opened up into a real house. Nicole told me to make myself at home, then disappeared too. There seemed no place for me to go but to my room. Eventually I heard Nicole in the laundry room—folding the clothes, I guessed, that were dry on the racks. I wondered if I should offer to do it and stood in the middle of my room for a long time, frozen in indecision until it was too late. Nicole knocked on my door when she was through, her head just above the tall pile. I nodded to everything she said, though all I really understood was that she would do breakfast tomorrow but that I should be ready to do something else at ten. She wasn’t fooled by my nods but she was tired, too, and simply repeated the time, ten o’clock, when I should be ready. Then she told me to sleep well and shut the door.
One by one I heard the children wash faces, brush teeth, and go to bed.
I removed the remaining things from the pouches inside my suitcase: a paperback, mittens, a flashlight. I examined them peacefully now, these pieces from my room in my sister’s house. They bore no marks of the fury and fear with which they had been packed. But when I felt the tiny comb, my hand became too heavy to lift and I sat on the bed beside the suitcase. I was determined to look, though it took me a long time. There were several strands of the baby’s fine red hair wound up in the plastic teeth. All that hair. My sister called him Samson and pulled it up with two hands above his head, like she used to do, years ago, when shampooing me. I brought the comb to my nose because I knew it would smell of his scalp and that smelling would hurt far more than seeing. Then I unwrapped a strand and pulled it through my lips, slowly. My cheek had fit perfectly in the soft depression below his crown.
I wound it back on the teeth, set the comb carefully in the pouch, and went to the window. Although I had no sensation of movement, I could hear the faint pat of the river against the hull and, fainter still, the barge ropes straining on their fat cleats. I was relieved by the sky’s final darkness and the slow flames of light from the bridge lamps on the water. Another day, however, a day to follow this one, seemed impossible. It had taken all my strength to get this far.
Despite the lingering warmth of the air, a long chill went through me. I undressed quickly and got into bed. The sheets were good, expensive sheets, the kind that always stay slippery and cold, but I already knew sleep wouldn’t find me here.
After a long while, someone went into Lola’s room next door. She whispered and a man’s voice hoarsed back. A father’s voice. I’d forgotten about a father. The only word I could make out—and they each said it, Lola first, her father repeating—was my name.
The next morning there were knocks at my door, knocks so swift and hard they were barely discernible as separate sounds. I pulled open the door and saw, in a flicker of a second, Nicole’s face fall again with that expression. Its source was unidentifiable; her eyes did not travel; her hands remained at her sides. But there was something in my response that caused disappointment.
As I stepped out into the hallway, I debated whether to shut the door behind me. Not shutting it seemed an invitation for anyone to paw through my things, but shutting it seemed as if I had something to hide. I glanced down to the kids’ rooms and, seeing them all open, let go of my door at about halfway, but Nicole reached behind me to shut it firmly, saying something to which I quickly agreed, not having recognized one word in all the sounds. She proceeded ahead of me then, zigzagging down the hall to shut first Lola’s, then Guillaume’s, then Odile’s door, as if to say with each tug that no one but her ever had any common sense about doors.
She wore the kind of pants shaped for shapely women, the kind that matter if they get wrinkled and are sold from hangers, not in piles arranged by waist and length. Into these black pants was tucked a sleeveless green shirt that seemed nearly fluorescent against her deep brown shoulders and arms and the even darker dip of nape below the precise cut of her hair. When we reached the coatroom, a landing halfway up the stairs, she put on a thin jacket and hung a purse on one shoulder. This morning, she explained as we stepped off the barge, she would show me how to shop for groceries.
Up on the street, I couldn’t help noticing that people stared at the pair we made. I thought Nicole absurd for dressing up to food shop, for wearing heels and a shiny evening purse that thwacked against her bony hip. It was embarrassing. But after we had walked a few blocks I realized that every woman was wearing heels and carrying shiny purses, even women juggling toddlers, purchases, and sometimes a little dog on a leash. Only in an occasional cluster of tourists moving from one bridge to the next were there women who wore sandals or sneakers or untucked shirts. Though it was only just ten (the thin strokes of a clock reached us from somewhere upriver), the sun beat down fiercely, and I marveled at these women who moved past swiftly in dark clothes and pantyhose, who fit heat-swollen feet into narrow shoes, with neither sweat nor grimace. I wore a T-shirt, track shorts, and flip-flops and was still uncomfortable.
The occasional pulses of traffic stirred up a wind hotter than the air. Nicole moved even more quickly than the rest. I realized that I embarrassed her.
“Il fait chaud,” I ventured.
“Oui, oui. Il fait chaud,” she said, without turning back to me, as if I were one of the men slouching against the river wall trying to get her attention. Then she slowed and said perfectly clearly, as I gained ground, “I adore this heat.”
“Me too,” I said, which wasn’t true, but I didn’t know many negatives and negatives made room for a whole conversation and Il fait chaud was about as complex as I wanted things to get.
She tried to tell me something else. I thought she said the heat reminded her of her childhood. But when I asked where she was from, she looked at me suspiciously. “I’ve lived in Paris for nearly thirty years,” she said, then added reluctantly, “but I come from a town in the south.”
“You’ve never heard of it.”
She veered off the sidewalk, then, and swiftly crossed the street. I hurried to keep up. We passed a café, a dry cleaner’s, a pharmacy, a bookstore. At the oisellerie there were birds stacked in wooden cages on the sidewalk, black roosters with scarlet crests and tongue-shaped wattles, white doves with long lacy tails. A man in oily coveralls rolled out another stack of square cages from inside the store, this one containing rabbits, white, gray, and cinnamon-colored rabbits, some hugely fat, some with ears so long they spilled onto the floor of their cage. Pigeons flocked, vying for position along the outside slats.
The smell of the cages pervaded the hot sidewalk. I could see how people were avoiding the stench, but I thought it was delicious.
“I’m sorry,” I called, when I realized I’d come to a full stop. I hurried to Nicole, who was waiting in the shade of the next awning.
She muttered something, and when she saw I hadn’t understood told me simply and slowly that the birds made her sad.
“Oui,” I said. I couldn’t bring myself to say moi aussi again, because they made me elated. They made me feel I lived in a very exotic place, where in a matter of three steps the air could change from the smell of burnt diesel to the smell of a barnyard, where beneath one awning could be a cart of computer manuals and beneath the next a crate of fowl, where the world could shift centuries within a half block.
When we reached the supermarket, she pointed out a row of shopping carts. I removed one and wheeled it to the entrance, stopping on the rubber mat before the closed door.
“What are you doing?” she said behind me, after a few moments. “It doesn’t work by itself. You have to go like this”—and she took the cart from me, swung it around, and backed into the door—”like everyone else.”
When she was insulting me, I always managed to understand Nicole.
Inside the store she gave back the cart. I headed right, toward
the produce, but she quickly steered me left, explaining that fruits and vegetables are delicate and should go on top. It went on like this. She would ask me to pick out pasta or bottled water, and invariably I would choose the wrong type or size or brand. She asked me to get milk and I went toward the dairy section, but that was wrong too. Milk came in unrefrigerated boxes next to the cereal. With each error would come a lengthy explanation of exactly why she bought what she did.
When our number was called at the cheese counter, she receded and I stood alone with the ticket as the woman interrogated me about the cheeses Nicole had named and I now repeated. When it came to how much—in kilograms—of each I wanted, I turned back to Nicole. But she wouldn’t help. She stood behind the gathering crowd of women, looking directly through me. A few people began to grumble. I blushed, then began to sweat from all the blushing. Finally I held up a triangle of fingers. When it was all over, I squeezed my way back to Nicole; she said “Trés bien” without a hint of sarcasm and pointed me toward produce.
I thought this section would be the easiest, but by then I had lost even my ability to judge a good tomato from a bad and was sent back to the crate to empty the bag and start again.
Nicole made me nervous. She made me miserable. I knew if she asked me my own name I would not be able to say it correctly.
In the checkout line I began to worry about getting it all home. I wanted to ask but remembered my French teacher being very particular about the two verbs, to bring and to take, and I was certain I would use the wrong one.
She handed me a check just as the cashier announced the total. It was an incredibly long series of numbers, of which I heard only the number five. It was five hundred and something francs and something centimes.
“Comment?” I asked with mild curiosity, as if I had only missed one numeral.
He repeated the same string of digits and, seeing my pen still poised after the word cinq, pointed to the total on the register. I froze. I felt the line grow longer behind me. I didn’t know how to write 598,67. I had forgotten. I could hear the sounds in my head but had no letters for them. I felt the blood rushing up again. I could not do it. I could not.
“I don’t know,” I said to Nicole, and handed her the pen.
“You’ve got to learn your numbers. You’ve got to practice,” she said, when we were out on the street. “You’ve got to write each one fifty times.”
I wanted to tell her that I’d known my numbers before I walked into the store, that she made me so panicked I couldn’t think, that I’d had one slice of pizza since I’d landed in this country and that was nearly sixteen hours ago. It was then I remembered the groceries. We had none of them and were halfway home.
“The food!” I cried, delighted that for once we’d finally done something foolish together.
I laughed too loudly and she told me to ssss. She explained something, but I didn’t understand until later in the afternoon when all the groceries were delivered in boxes right to the kitchen floor.
Starting the following Monday, she told me, as she showed me exactly where each item belonged, I was to do all the shopping myself. She would sign the check in advance and I would take it to the store alone.
The next morning I got up at five-thirty, turned on a light at the dressing table, and began writing out numbers. I got all the way to cent quarante-huit before it was time to wake up the children for their second day of school.
The Pleasing Hour
1. Discuss the moral implications of Rosie’s sister, Sarah, accepting the “gift” of Rosie’s child. Which sister is more naive to think that the adoption will be easy? Why does Rosie choose to become an au pair after being deprived of mothering her own son? Is it painful for her to care for someone else’s children? Or, is it a necessary outlet for her flood of maternal instincts? Some would argue that Rosie herself is still a child despite having given birth. When does Rosie seem the most childlike and vulnerable? In what ways or in what situations does she seem older than her years?
2. In what ways does the language barrier heighten Rosie’s perceptions and make her more instinctual toward her host family in Paris? How does it affect her initial reactions to Nicole, Marc, and the Tivot children? What clues does Rosie rely upon when she fails to grasp the family’s French? Recall Rosie’s feelings of confidence and superiority when she easily adjusts to Spanish and serves as translator during the family’s trip to Spain. Discuss the complex relationship between language and power throughout the book.
3. Discuss the nuanced portraits the author draws of Odile, Lola, and Guillaume Tivot. How does she explore the disparate experiences siblings can have growing up in the same family? What accounts for the children’s vastly different temperaments and degrees of allegiance with Nicole and Marc? How does the author use the kids’ reactions to the bullfights in Spain as a way of further revealing their different dispositions and approaches toward life?
4. During her time on the Tivots’ houseboat, Rosie is terribly intimidated by Nicole, who is critical and difficult to please. But as the novel progresses, similarities are revealed in the characters’ pasts. Both Rosie and Nicole, for example, lost their mothers early. How does this loss affect each of the women? What else do Rosie and Nicole have in common despite their differences?
5. Recall the change Rosie senses in Nicole during their travels in Spain and her feeling that the trip had “loosened things” inside Nicole. After their return, Rosie believes that Nicole has come to trust her, yet she also suspects that Nicole knows about her affair with Marc. Is it possible that both of Rosie’s insights are correct? Do you think Lola told Nicole that she saw Rosie and Marc holding hands? How do you account for the change in Nicole toward the end of the book? Why do you think she softens toward Rosie and toward Marc?
6. Trace the development of the women’s relationship, and discuss how Rosie’s presence affects Marc and Nicole’s marriage. How does Rosie act as a conduit for Marc and Nicole? How does Rosie’s love for Marc change him in Nicole’s eyes?
7. Was Rosie really in love with Marc? He with her? Or were they using each other in various ways? Did you think that Rosie is just another au pair under Marc’s belt? And did Nicole encourage their affair, want it to happen? What reasons would she have for that? What did Nicole learn from the way in which Rosie loved Marc?
8. What are Nicole’s true motives in encouraging Rosie to live with and care for Lucie Quenelle in Plaire? Is she protecting her marriage, helping Lucie, or giving Rosie the gift of a warm mother figure and friend? What is the effect of Rosie growing close to Lucie and learning about Nicole’s history? Is it possible that Nicole hoped Lucie would tell Rosie about her past?
9. The book offers detailed portraits of two marriages: Marcelle and Octave’s and Nicole and Marc’s. Compare and contrast the dynamics of each relationship. Do the similarities suggest that daughters are destined to repeat the marital patterns of their mothers? Why are both women so disappointed in their husbands? How do Octave and Marc react to their wives’ emotional distance? Do you think that Nicole and Marc’s marriage is as ill-fated as Marcelle and Octave’s? Or is there still hope for their relationship?
10. Leslie, the other American fille Rosie meets, says: “The French have a totally different definition of marriage.” Do you agree? Can one glean from the marriages depicted in this book what that definition might be?
11. Discuss the theme of unrequited love throughout the novel. Recall Octave’s steadfast loyalty toward Marcelle; Pére Frederi Lafond’s obsession for Marie-Jo; Nicole’s passion for her first boyfriend, Stephane; and Odile’s infatuation with the sculptor Isabelle. Does the book suggest that we are drawn toward those who refuse to return our love? Compare and contrast these characters’ reactions to rejection and loss. How do their disappointments shape their choices and futures?
12. Recall the “psychology test” Rosie gives Nicole and Marc in Spain, asking them to rank the people in a scenario from most admirable to most despicable. Apply the test to the characters in The Pleasing Hour. Which character do you find the most admirable? Which the least? Why? What traits do you most admire in people? What traits do you find the most deplorable or unforgivable?
13. Compare and contrast Rosie’s experiences in Paris and in Plaire. What effect does the author achieve in the telling of the story by alternating between the two locales? What kind of refuge does each offer Rosie? What lessons do the two parts of her journey impart?
14. How has Rosie changed by the end of the novel? Do you think she will return to the United States, make amends with her sister, and come to terms with having given away her son? How do you think her experiences with the Tivots will influence how she copes with her own family? What do you envision in Rosie’s future?