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Set in 1953/54, this film stars Julia Roberts as Katherine Watson, a graduate student from California, who takes a position teaching Art History at Wellesley College, Massachusetts.  The females under her tutorage are surprised by her subversive attitude (by their standards), and her progressive beliefs, as they all think that they are destined to be wives, mothers and nothing more.  The faculty are unhappy about her teaching methods, with the exception of Italian tutor Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), a charismatic but irresponsible man who has a reputation for sleeping with his students, especially Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is clearly still stuck on him.  The main characters apart from Katherine and Bill are four students, namely Giselle; Joan (Julia Stiles), an intelligent young woman with a yearning to study Law, but who believes that a woman cannot have a career and marriage; Betty (Kirsten Dunst), a particularly spiteful young lady, who is a product of her overbearing mother; and Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin), a sweet-natured girl, who despairs of ever finding a man who loves her.

This film caught my eye purely because Dominic West is in it; as one of my favourite actors, he never disappoints, and as expected, was great here – as indeed was the whole cast.  All four of the main student characters were perfectly played, and I particularly liked Goodwin’s Connie.  Dunst was also outstanding as Betty, even if I could not stand her character for most of the film (nonetheless, her actions are understandable, if not excusable).  I’ve seen some reviews which suggested that Julia Roberts was not well-cast as Katherine Watson, but I beg to differ.  I enjoyed her in this more rounded and human role than some that she played earlier in her career, and enjoyed her chemistry with Dominic West.  Marcia Gay Harden and Juliet Stevenson were wonderful in supporting roles, as Katherine’s housemates, respectively another tutor, and the school nurse (who is fired for providing the students with contraception).

The film was inspiring too – there were some funny moments, and a surprising amount of tear-inducing scenes (I had to watch the last few scenes through my tears).  It was thought-provoking and emotionally satisfying, and I thoroughly enjoyed it from the first scene to the last.  Very highly recommended.

Year of release: 2003

Director: Mike Newell

Producers: Joe Roth, Richard Baratta, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Paul Schiff, Deborah Schindler

Writers: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal

Main cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Marcia Gay Harden

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This book covers one single day in Paris, when three French tutors each walk around Paris with their student for that day.  Sensitive poet Nico’s student is Josie, who has come to Paris to try and mend her broken heart.  Womanising Phillipe’s student is Riley, who has moved to Paris when her husband’s job relocated him there.  She feels lonely and disconnected in Paris, and even more so when she is with her husband.  Elegant and graceful Chantal’s student is Jeremy, the loyal husband of a movie star who finds his wife’s way of life too hectic and noisy for him.

The stories of the three tutors and their respective students are all told separately, so that the book reads more like three short stories than a novel.  Apart from the fact that the tutors all work for the same language school, and that relations between the three of them are complicated (Chantal and Phillipe are in a relationship, but his constant unfaithfulness led to her ending up in bed with Nico), there is little connection between the three stories, except that at some point in the day they separately end up at the same location.

As well as learning or improving their French language skills, each student – and certainly one, possibly two of the tutors – learn somethng about love, passion and loss. 

I wasn’t too sure what to make of this book – the cover image led me to believe it would be in the chick-lit genre, but I wouldn’t class this book as chick-lit.  It is easy reading, but there are some deep insights within the stories.  Paris itself is portrayed subtly but beautifully (with each story there is a map showing where that particular student and tutor walked).

There is some beautiful writing contained within the pages, especially in Jeremy’s story, while Riley’s story contained some sharp humour (and a fairly explicit bedroom scene).  However, as each character is only shown for a few hours of one day – providing little more than a snapshot – I never felt that I got to know any of them particularly well, and therefore felt unable to connect with any of them.

Overall, I would call this undemanding and enjoyable read, but I’m not sure that it’s one that will linger very long in the memory.

(I would like to thank Judging Covers for sending me this book to review.  Judging Covers’ website can be found here.  Ellen Sussman’s website can be found here.)

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