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WHEN IN FRENCH: Love in a Second Language– A staff writer at the New Yorker since 2008, Collins has profiled April Bloomfield and the reinvention of the gastropub, Michelle Obama at the height of the 2008 election, the graffiti artist Banksy, and Gérard Depardieu. In her first book, Collins turns her unwavering eye on herself, and the result is a most delightful, singular memoir—replete with linguistics, semantics, history, and plenty of French—that is, at its heart, a love story.
A language barrier is no match for love. Collins discovered this firsthand when, in her early thirties, she moved to London and fell for a Frenchman named Olivier—a surprising turn of events for someone who didn’t have a passport until she was in college. But what does it mean to love someone in a second language, Collins wonders, as her relationship with Olivier continues to grow entirely in English. Are there things she doesn’t understand about Olivier, having never spoken to him in his native tongue? Does “I love you” even mean the same thing as “je t’aime”? When the couple, newly married, relocates to Francophone Geneva, Collins—fearful of one day becoming “a Borat of a mother” who doesn’t understand her own kids—decides to answer her questions for herself by learning French.
WHEN IN FRENCH is a laugh-out-loud funny and surprising memoir about the lengths we go to for love, as well as an exploration across culture and history into how we learn languages—and what they say about who we are. Collins grapples with the complexities of the French language, enduring excruciating role-playing games with her classmates at a Swiss language school and accidentally telling her mother-in-law that she’s given birth to a coffee machine. In learning French, Collins must wrestle with the very nature of French identity and society, which is a far cry from life back home in North Carolina. Plumbing the mysterious depths of humanity’s many forms of language, Collins describes with great style and wicked humor the frustrations, embarrassments, surprises, and, finally, joys of learning—and living in—French.
It is a rare book that combines humor and knowledge with the skill and charm on display by Collins. We promise you’ll turn each page with a smile. WHEN IN FRENCH is a tour de force, and I very much hope you will keep it in mind for your plans this fall.