Review: Foreign Tongue by Vanina Marsot

434145Foreign 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.

Lisa meets Vanina

Lisa meets Vanina

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:

img_2785“”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!

Review: Chez Moi by Agnes Desarthe

9780143113232lChez Moi by Agnes Desarthe was written in the author’s native French and translated into English.  This meandering story is about Myriam, a 40 something woman with a haunted past who secures a bank loan based on a fictitious resume to open a restaurant.  Chez Moi (“my home”) is just that, both home and eatery, tucked into a small corner on a quiet Paris street without so much as a sign announcing it.  Myriam sleeps on a donated banquette in the dining room and bathes in a deep stainless steel sink in the kitchen.

 Myriam attempts to do everything by herself- shopping, cooking, cleaning, waiting tables, and bookkeeping.  She’s a talented cook but doesn’t have any business sense whatsoever.  Almost despite herself she begins to have regular customers but soon finds she cannot do it all alone.  Just when she needs him most, the best waiter in the world appears.  Ben has grown up in the neighborhood and knows everybody.  He’s savvy with money and knowledgeable about the internet and in the kitchen.  He helps Myriam’s business really take off, but more importantly plays a role in healing her fractured heart and helping her move on from her past.

 We learn about Myriam’s past as she ruminates over mistakes she has made in her life.  Her biggest heartache is her failing as a mother to her son, Hugo, who she never loved properly and to whom she has done something entirely repellant.  She doesn’t see how the situation can ever be repaired.   Fleeing her life some years ago, she has shut down emotionally.  Over the course of the book she starts rebuilding her relationships and begins to make new friends.  She learns to rely on herself and trust her abilities. I wanted Myriam to succeed and I rooted for her, although I thought she was a bit disturbed. 

There are a couple of interesting peripheral characters.  Vincent is a florist in the shop next door with a crush on Myriam and breath that could kill an elephant.  Little brother Charles is a successful businessman, and Ben the waiter is happily asexual. 

Food and friendship are at the heart of Chez Moi.  It’s a slim volume but a slow read.  The vivid description of food is a highlight and the writing is pleasant but there is virtually no action.  Some might find it boring, but I liked Myriam and I’m glad I got to know her.  I liked the book for it’s dreamlike quality, the interesting turn of phrase and use of language.  I’d recommend it to those who enjoy character driven stories and beautiful writing, but if you like a little more plot and a story that moves along quickly, this isn’t it. 

I heard about this book from author Jennie Shortridge, who recommended several books as alternative choices for book clubs in this post.  My own book club will discuss Chez Moi in January.  It will be interesting to see what everyone thinks, because it was definitely a different kind of read than what we’re used to.