I first learned of "Foreign Tongue" through an online advertisement a few years ago. My interest in it was further piqued by its focus on a young woman, with dual French/American citizenship (conversant in both French and English) and her experiences in Paris. As someone who has visited Paris twice over the past decade and lived and worked for a time abroad, I am drawn to stories that tie in culture, language, and human sensibilities.
Notwithstanding that, I had a lingering fear that this novel might prove to be an overly maudlin chick-lit book that would have my eyes rolling in disbelief. Thankfully, that was not the case. The main character, Anne, a professional writer in Los Angeles, leaves the States in mid-summer for a Parisian refuge offered free of charge by her Aunt Isabelle (who lives, in the main, in San Francisco) after being jilted by her boyfriend, who has become a newfound celebrity.
Anne opens herself to the reader, and by extension, allows us to experience Paris vicariously. In the process, she finds a job translating for a small publishing house, chapter by chapter, a novel from a mysterious figure who may be someone from the upper echelons of French society. At roughly the same time, she catches the attention in a cozy bar/restaurant of Olivier, an actor she first spotted at a friend's party a few weeks earlier. They gradually develop a rapport which blossoms into a torrid romance with all its twists and turns.
One of the aspects of the novel I enjoyed very much was Anne's relationships with a number of minor characters. For instance, the married couple Antoine (a writer) and Victorine (a scriptwriter/translator), whom Anne had met at a private party. Here is one of the exchanges Anne had with the couple:
(Anne) "You have a more comfortable relationship with cruelty, perhaps. After all, in French, to be malicieux can have a good connotation, like someone who has a delightfully pointed sense of humor: malicieux et delicieux," I said.
"But you have this as well --- the wicked sense of humor," Antoine remarked.
"That's true," I admitted. "I hadn't thought of that." Victorine poked a finger in the teapot and took it into the kitchen...
"We are not so different a la base," Antoine mused. "It is more a question of style, of the things we privilege more than you, and vice versa."
"Like?" I asked. (Anne)
"You value approval more than we do. We privilege pride, this idea of 'saving face,' so important to the Japanese as well. You are more open, we are more reserved. We like riddles, you like answers. We are more interested in the game than the outcome," he said...
"The game," I repeated, unsure of what he meant. (Anne)
"The game of social interaction," he clarified. "The discovery, layer by layer, of people. The unfolding of meaning. This is something we appreciate. It seems to me --- but I am speaking in broad strokes and there are always exceptions --- however, it seems to me Americans want to know who and what everything is, they want to fix it so it will stay put and they can move accordingly. Look at your politics," he said. "As de Gaulle said --- and I am not usually one for quoting him --- your country excels at attempting to impose simplistic solutions onto complex problems. But nothing is simple or fixed in life. People are surprising: vain, careless, flawed, contradictory, often blind, and full of foibles. This is diverting, confusing, maddening, and, of course, touching." He leaned back in his chair, pipe clamped between his teeth.
There were also some elements in the dynamics of Anne's and Olivier's relationship Anne and Olivier that were just as revelatory. But I won't go into any of that here. What I enjoyed most was the journey I experienced through reading this novel. I really didn't want it to end.