THE DEVIL, BEFORE PRADA: Debut author Hilary Reyl is on a whirlwind tour of Europe this week, promoting her smart, darkly humorous novel Lessons in French (Simon & Schuster), a book whose antagonist is a Condé Nast creative type who makes Miranda Priestly look as threatening as a petit-four.
Lydia Schell, a famous reportage photographer based in Paris and working for Vanity Fair is charismatic, cruel, and manipulative in all matters personal and professional. She offers her smart young assistant, Katie, peach Kirs one minute, and angrily makes her clean up the dog’s pee in her swanky, 6th arrondissement apartment in the next. Lydia’s ego is as fat as the liver of a force-fed duck. “I helped end the Vietnam War and I will not be called irresponsible in my own house,” she tells her sniping family before a big Thanksgiving dinner.
Lydia’s smart, henpecked husband Clarence who’s writing a book about 19th Century French fashion; her hotshot fashion editor pal Sally Meeks, who lives for freebies; and her two, resentful college-age children round out the dysfunctional picture.
And while it is utterly tempting to play who’s who, Reyl — a Yale graduate with a Ph.D. in French literature from NYU — said the book, which takes place in 1989-90 just as the Berlin Wall is coming down, is a work of fiction.
“It is not a roman a clef, and it’s not a memoir, but there is an emotional truth to it,” she said before a packed reading at Daunt Books in London’s Holland Park earlier this week. “Paris is the backdrop to my own coming of age, but what happened to me wasn’t [the plot of] a novel.” Still, Lessons in French will undoubtedly make a few media high-flyers of days past and present quake in their Maud Frizon boots.