At first, Foreign Tongue, the debut novel by French-American author Vanina Marsot, kind of bugged me with its smarty pants insiders' view of Paris. The story of twenty something Anna, the novel begins when she has fled to Paris after a failed relationship in Los Angeles. Paris is a city she knows well from childhood summers spent with her French grandmother and a stint as a college student. But it seemed to me that there was almost too much specificity about Anna's neighborhood, the streets she wanders, the cafes she frequents, and the buses she takes. Yeah, yeah, I was thinking, quit showing off already. We get that you KNOW Paris.
Midway through, I changed my mind when bilingual Anna, who has taken the job of translating an erotic novel into English from French, starts to reflect on the intricacies of the French language and the intertwining of cultural values, expectations, and language itself. The ups and downs of Anna's love life take a back seat to these much more interesting musings on how language defines the self. Marsot takes on the tricky aspects of faux amis (words that sound alike in French and English but have different meanings), riffs on how the differences between Americans and the French play out in their speech, and shares with her readers a whole arsenal of French swear words. Personally I loved the fact that a bilingual person was just as confused by the construction "tu me manques" (literally "to me, you are missing") which translates as "I miss you." Bottom line? Not a must read but still a pleasant twist on the American in Paris theme. I'd call it classic chick lit with a healthy serving of linguistics and cross cultural angst.