A trilogy of unique love stories set in a French school amid political and ideological conflicts.
The scene is 1953 Paris, during the tense and complex post-war years when the French perceive American citizens as either liberators or unwelcome occupiers. The book opens with a lovely description of a Paris morning, but the mood becomes ominous as protagonist Bill Helmer awakens full of anxiety and apprehension. It’s his first day back as principal of the American High School in Paris, which is supported and run by the U.S. military. Capt. Murphy is the school officer, a rule-and-order aficionado who is compelled to protect the children from what he perceives as brewing political radicalism. But Helmer, who values a more liberal education, frequently butts heads with Murphy and others who favor discipline. Helmer becomes distracted when he falls for Colette, the lovely, fiery new French teacher who he pursues despite his status as her superior. Johnston interweaves this love story with those of Hal Evans, the assistant principal who desperately searches Paris for his lost love–a Yugoslavian refugee named Zizi–and students Tony Mosca and Kay Selner, who struggle to resolve the issue of Kay’s unexpected pregnancy. These two plotlines are touching and compelling. Far too brief are the scenes between Colette and Jean, a Communist and her former lover. Their relationship, and their conversations concerning the corrupt bourgeois ideals Jean feels the Americans are importing, are richly complex. Using a setting other than the high school might lend much-needed drama to the story–Johnston pays far too much attention to the minutia of school administration and the discussions among the PTA members.
Many beautiful descriptions and engaging dialogues, but the cast of characters would benefit from a school vacation.