Foreign Tongue is a charming and witty first novel by Vanina Marsot. It begins in L.A., where Anna has been unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend. In the past, her former boyfriends had “disappeared obligingly into the woodwork” but it’s different with Timothy. He’s everywhere- People, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone. She can’t get away from his face due to his sudden fame in Hollywood. Realizing she has nothing to tie her down (even her job at a PR firm is portable), she takes advantage of her dual citizenship and runs away to Paris, where her aunt has an apartment she can use, rent-free.
Anna, upon arriving in Paris, thinks: “When running away, I recommend arriving with keys. Makes you feel like you’re actually in control of the situation instead of on the lam from your life.” Anna throws herself into her life in Paris. Within a couple of days she has contacted her Parisian friends and is going out and seeing people, eating pastries, doing the two-cheek kiss kiss with lots of old pals. There are friends from college, a gay couple, and one friend in particular, nicknamed Bunny, who is an older father figure she confides in, and who always gives her the “no BS” version of life. Even though she’s busy, she is still privately wallowing in her misery over her failed relationship.
It isn’t long before she’s found a job translating a novel from French to English. It turns out to be an erotic novel, and is parceled out to her one chapter at a time. “Are you discreet?”, the editor wants to know, because the anonymous author is someone very
famous. She quickly finds herself rubbing elbows with the Paris glitterati and hanging out with all the cool people, and dating a hot but not terribly honest actor, Olivier, making another poor romantic choice.
There is a lot in this book to like. The story is great and there is a sad twist at the end that was completely unexpected (at least I didn’t see it coming). Each chapter starts off with a quote in English or French (with a translation) that pertains to the upcoming chapter. If you speak French or have been to Paris, you’ll love it. I don’t speak French but was able to skip over the French words and phrases (because I have no clue how to pronounce them, even in my head) and not lose the integrity of the story. There are many French swear words, and some amusing translations of English phrases into French, and vice versa. It’s fascinating how certain words can be really dirty in one language and completely mild in another, and how some things just don’t translate well.
I loved Anna. She is cool, but not really cool. Smart but not overly sophisticated. Somewhat gullible, charming, comic, self-deprecating, dazzled by flirtation and good looks. She leaps to conclusions and keeps getting it wrong. She’s beautiful but unassuming, elegant but klutzy. And she loves shoes.
She cracked me up too. In one scene, she bolts from a café then realizes, embarrassed, that she’s left a bag with racy lingerie in it behind, where a guy she likes may find it. She puts on luxurious, expensive body oil after a shower but then her clothes stick to her and she feels like “a roast duck”, realizing “body oil was for women who had the time or patience to recline on lounge chairs in gauzy caftans”. At a party she gets mad because she assumes she’s been stood up- she leaves in a huff then realizes her date couldn’t call because she’d left her phone at home. Doh!
If you are into linguistics, or if you’ve ever struggled for just the right word, you’ll love this book. I enjoyed all the talk of translation. For example, while talking to a friend, Anna ponders the following:
“”Okay. How do you translate ‘seduire’? In English, ‘to be seduced’ has a connotation of corruption, an inkling of something against one’s will or good intentions; ‘etre seduit’ is closer to being beguiled. ‘Elle a un grand besoin de seduire’ doesn’t mean she needs to seduce people but rather that she needs to be liked- and yet, while there is a notion of seduction that isn’t sexual, it isn’t nonsexual either. ‘Legerete’ means lightness, but in some contexts, it seems to describe an almost Zen-like state of serenity. How do you say ‘lame’ or ‘rude’ or ‘confused’ in French? Why is ‘violence’ in English so physical, whereas the French use it for emotions as well? Why do French people believe in love at first sight, and we think it’s adolescent?””
I feel like I’ve been to Paris, but not on vacation. I didn’t see the Eiffel Tower or the Mona Lisa, but I did stroll down the cobblestone streets, sit at the cafes with my brainy French friends, eat baguettes, stay up too late, drink too much, and discuss words and books. Yeah, that was fun.
I was able to meet Vanina Marsot at the LA Times Festival of Books. She was charming and beautiful and kind, and I have no idea what nonsense I said to her, but hopefully I expressed how much I thoroughly enjoyed Foreign Tongue. It was one of my favorite books of the year so far. I loved it!