Foreign Tongue
About Foreign Tongue

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LA Times Review of Foreign Tongue:

Foreign Tongue is a rare and canny creature: a brainy, sexy, romantic comedy of letters...

— The Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Times
by Laura Collins-Hughes
April 25, 2009

Vanina Marsot's first novel, "Foreign Tongue," is a rare and canny creature: a brainy, sexy, romantic comedy of letters — albeit one whose plot is set in motion too predictably by a humiliating breakup with a cheating boyfriend.

Anna, its heroine, wouldn't be quite so eager to escape Los Angeles if said cheater hadn't recently become pop culture's latest It Boy, his image taunting her from magazine covers. To nurse her wounded heart, she flees to Paris, keys to her aunt's empty apartment in hand. Courtesy of her French father, Anna has dual citizenship; she knows the language and the city, and she has friends there.

When she needs a job, the owner of a bookshop near the Palais du Luxembourg hires her to translate into English an erotic roman à clef by a well-known man whose identity is to remain a secret from her. So assiduously guarded is the text that it's doled out to her a chapter at a time. To us, it becomes a book within a book, and we watch as Anna confronts the issues that bedevil anyone trying to fully and richly convey in one language something that is said in another.

With an American translator as its heroine and an intrigue about authorship at its center, "Foreign Tongue" could hardly be more enamored of literature and the nuances of language. When those things are somehow concerned with sex and affairs of the heart, so much the better.

It's a spirit perfectly captured by the epigraph to an early chapter, a question posed in French by novelist and critic Frédéric Beigbeder, fluidly translated by Marsot: "Why do your knees make me want to invent transitive verbs?"

For Marsot, who splits her time between Los Angeles and Paris and has worked as a translator of television and film scripts, translation is more than a subject. It's a task she sets herself here, studding "Foreign Tongue" with French words and passages. She manages, rather astonishingly, to make her meanings clear to readers who don't speak the language while avoiding the trap of over-explaining to those who do.

"You translate a whole culture when you translate a novel," an acquaintance tells Anna, so it's a boon to her work, not to mention her mood, that she soon falls hard for the tall, square-jawed actor-director Olivier Vallant, whose numerous attractions include a habit of assembling delectable breakfasts while she sleeps.

But Anna is a bit of a rube at love, easily taken in by charm and good looks, willing to ignore what common sense tells her she ought at least to investigate. There is, for example, Olivier's unhealthily avid interest in the novel she's translating. And is he still involved with the famous, older, married actress he's directing in a play, even if he says their romance is through?

Anna's avoidance of confrontation enables Marsot to sustain such ambiguities and draw out suspense as she sprinkles the narrative with red herrings -- about Olivier, about the anonymous author and his novel and about the strange behavior of Anna's closest friend in Paris, an editor in his 60s whom she long ago nicknamed Bunny. (The name is forced on the character in the interest of foreshadowing. It's a gratingly too-cute appellation for a dignified man well over 6 feet tall; it does, however, perfectly set up a poignant line more than 300 pages in.)

As the book Anna is translating shifts from erotic adventure to love story to something darker and more searching, so does her daily life. Whether the parallels are the product of coincidence, the unknown novelist's design or her own perception is a puzzle that pulls the reader along.

Occasionally Marsot's structure creaks, as when Anna keeps lucking into strangers who raise convenient points about translation, or when she turns mercurial in moments that feel engineered for the plot. But this grown-up smart-girl fantasy is generally well constructed. It's fun too.

"Tell me," Anna asks a friend, "what's it called in French when a film ends happily but in a way you don't believe?"

"An American ending," the friend replies.

Anna doesn't get an American ending, not in that sense. But she and Marsot are both straddling cultures. If the moonlit Parisian finish to "Foreign Tongue" is a little Hollywood, who says that's a bad thing?

International news channel France 24 interviews Vanina about her book.

Vanina discusses Foreign Tongue, her debut novel.

Foreign Tongue Reviews:

Marsot's debut novel is a delectable treat for any Francophile.

— Library Journal

Library Journal
by Anne M. Miskewitch
March 1, 2009

Marsot's debut novel is a delectable treat for any Francophile. Anna, a Hollywood copywriter, takes advantage of her dual citizenship and runs away to Paris after breaking up with her celebrity boyfriend. Enviably, she is able to live in her aunt's empty apartment, reacquaint with old friends, and find work as a translator for a noncommunicative editor. Anna's assignment, given to her in chapters, is a tell-all novel by an anonymous intellectual of French society. The book, often titillating and intriguing, allows Anna to contemplate theories of translation and her own understandings of the two languages. Anna finds love again with an actor and slowly learns that, with her work and her heart, she might be too literal for a world that is invariably complicated. Marsot succeeds in immersing the reader in French culture and mode de vie, and her ruminations on language in French and English are intelligent and engrossing. Recommended for all fiction collections and for fans of sophisticated chick lit.

Marsot's impressive debut examines sex and love in Paris—for once neither romanticized nor sentimentalized.

— Kirkus

March 1, 2009

Marsot's impressive debut examines sex and love in Paris—for once neither romanticized nor sentimentalized.

When an affair in Los Angeles ends unhappily, Anna sets off for the City of Lights without much of a plan. Though living free of charge in an apartment owned by her aunt (who's conveniently not using it), Anna soon realizes she needs a little steady income. She translates a trial chapter from an anonymous novel and learns through the author's agent Bernard that "Monsieur X" is pleased; from then on, Bernard periodically meets Anna to give her more chapters to translate. While it's not quite clear whether this is a novel or a memoir—she's been told the author is a prominent writer who doesn't want his identity known—the text is quite clearly erotic, and Anna finds herself both intrigued and titillated. Guided by an old friend, she goes to a sex club in a seamy quarter of Paris; shortly thereafter, she meets artistic, bohemian Olivier and embarks on a passionate affair. Just as Anna searches for le mot juste in her translation, she tries to find adequate words to convey what's happening with her emotions. She discovers that there are four endings to Monsieur X's novel, some more satisfying than others, and she wonders about the trajectory of her relationship with Olivier. "I just want a proper ending," she tells a friend, and that goes for the romance as well as the manuscript. Although she has dual French-American citizenship, Anna learns much through her encounters with Parisians. Her friend Antoine, for example, says, "You are more open, we are more reserved. We like riddles, you like answers. We are more interested in the game than the outcome."

Lively examination of the intricate interplay between identity and culture.

A compulsive read for translation theorists, and French language lovers at any level.

— La Coquette

La Coquette
September 17, 2009

Vanina Marsot's wonderful first novel, Foreign Tongue, is about a French American woman translating an erotic novel in France. As someone who grew up with both languages, Marsot has always been interested in the limitations and freedoms that are unique to either one. She explained in a France 24 interview this week that the novel was a "fun playground for me to ruminate on those differences."

A compulsive read for translation theorists, and French language lovers at any level, here's one of my favorite passages:

"How do you translate 'séduire'? In English, 'to be seduced' has a connotation of corruption, an inkling of something against one's will or good intentions; 'être séduit' is closer to being beguiled. 'Elle a un grand besoin de séduire' 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. 'Légèreté 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?".

Foreign Tongue has as many layered meanings as its playful title. This novel-within a novel is part erotic romance, part insightful musings on the nuances of the French language and the difficulties of translation.

— LaNew-Yorkaise

July 27, 2009

Vanina Marsot's Foreign Tongue has as many layered meanings as its playful title. This novel-within a novel is part erotic romance, part insightful musings on the nuances of the French language and the difficulties of translation.

Professional writer Anna takes advantage of her dual citizenship and flees to Paris after a bad break-up with LA's newest "it" actor. With her aunt's apartment as her home base, she reconnects with old friends and even takes on a job translating a roman à clef by an established French writer. The author's secret identity is a source of intrigue throughout the novel. Anna receives a chapter a week, slowly uncovering the story of the author's erotic affair as she uncovers her own desires and the complexities of conveying meaning between languages.

Marsot is at her best when she describes Anna struggling with the problems of translation. As Anna's own life changes, the way she interprets the narrator's motives (and even the narrator's sex!) changes, too, underscoring the many ways a translator can bring their own voice to a text, the divergences of meaning that can tease out elements only fleetingly present in the original.

When Anna is ordered to re-translate an oral sex scene in the book, the subtleties of power and simultaneous tenderness of the act are examined, as well as the differences in the erotic vocabularies of French and English. Readers will definitely pick up some fun new words: throughout the novel, Anna revels in the French vocabulary that "maps out" a woman's body, words for which English has no counterpart, such as "La chute des reins" (in English, the far less poetic "lower back.")

Those who have lived in or spent time in Paris will love Marsot's references to "gleeful trips to my neighborhood Monoprix" and her commentary on the ubiquity of curtains and French door double entrances: "the French don't like to see front doors, maybe because they like to pretend the outside world is that much farther away, or to hide the sight of the inevitable electricity and gas meters." She takes on youths speaking verlan, the latest slang that reverses syllables, and the French love of puns and subtlety compared to the American need for answers and directness.

Each chapter also opens with enjoyable quotes about Frenchness and language, featuring sound bites from everyone from Frederic Beigbeder to Serge Gainsbourg.

Where the novel dipped in providing pleasure where exactly those points where the narrative was explicitly devoted to the pursuit of pleasure: descriptions of the curious Anna in a sex club, the over-the-top sex scenes in the novel-within-a-novel, and the facile way Anna went from dating an American movie star boyfriend in LA to sleeping with the French star that practically falls into her lap. The directness of the titillation in these scenes reminded me of a conversation between the protagonist, Anna, and a French author, in which he explains the differences between the French and American temperaments. The French, he argues, value "the discovery, layer by layer, of people. 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 ...your country excels at attempting to impose simplistic solutions onto complex problems."

The novel's overall plot: girl gets dumped; girl moved to Paris to get over boy, girl finds love, is a conventional one. The American readership demands a familiar plot where we know who and what everything is, and not much new territory is gained through the plot devices in Foreign Tongue.

It is in the richness of the text, the profound quality and skill with which Marsot writes of the French language and French temperament, that her novel bursts out of the "chick lit" mold, providing glimpses into the genre's capacity for furnishing wit as well as pleasure.

[Foreign Tongue] is invigorating and inspiring and is one book you won't want to miss.

— The Literate Housewife

The Literate Housewife
March 30, 2009

Anna is running away from Los Angeles and the debacle that was her relationship with an actor boyfriend who began cheating on her the moment the clock started ticking on his fifteen minutes. As a result of her dual French/US citizenship and her aunt's empty Parisian flat, Anna has a much better escape route than most and she is open and honest on both accounts. Having the luxury of living rent free in the City of Lights, she is able to catch up with her friends in Paris. The trouble is that they each had their own lives and, being without a job, she spends much of her time sulking and brooding over her broken heart. It isn't until Bunny, her mentor and father figure suggests that she find a way to employ herself during one of their frequent lunches that her life starts to turn around. Because she was bilingual and spoke French as if she were born and raised there that she was able to snag a part time job translating an anonymous yet famous Parisian's erotic novel about the love of his life. She then enters the literary life of Paris and the arms of Olivier, a handsome stage actor.

Foreign Tongue is an apt name for this novel. By intermingling sex, language, culture, love, and translation the way that Vanina Marsot defines the phrase foreign tongue in every conceivable way. When I meet someone who speaks another language, I love to learn a word or two. What interests me the most, however, are cuss words. Most specifically, my favorite cuss word, mother f*cker. Although Foreign Tongue never used that particular term, I learned an awful lot of French cuss words, specifically how they relate to erotica. I was absolutely in heaven. There is a passage in the novel where Anna compares the differences between "Suck me!" in English and French. I found her dissection of these phrase based upon the sound of the words rolling off the tongue and the sound of the act itself absolutely fascinating. It wasn't just the dirty bits that enthralled me, though. Like no novel before, it gave me the desire to go back to school. I would love to study French and linguistics and incorporate more phrases such as "Arrête ton cinéma!" into my life.

It isn't long into her self-inflicted exile that Anna realizes that she has something more important to do than nurse her broken heart. She discovers that she is unsure of who she is when she's not in a relationship. Despite how important learning to be comfortable with herself is, she cannot help resist jumping quickly and directly into an overwhelming and passionate relationship with another actor. When she eventually starts to doubt Olivier's feelings toward her and falls into yet another despair without Bunny in town to build her back up, the story does seem to slow down. In reality there is much more going on under the surface that is not readily apparent despite the clues that come to mind the moment the novel is finished. This is not a simple and straight forward novel by any means.

The moment I finished it I wanted to start it all over again. I cannot completely express the number of ways in which I enjoyed Vanina Marsot's novel. It is a story of a woman falling in and out of love with a man. It is a love story between a woman and her two countries of citizenship: France and the United States. It is a love story between a woman and language. Most of all, it is the story of a woman falling in love with her life. I cannot recommend this novel enough. It is invigorating and inspiring and is one book you won't want to miss.