The book: Lauren Collins ’02 discovered that a language barrier is no match for love when she moved to London and fell in love with a Frenchman named Olivier. But she wondered what it means to love someone in a second language as her relationship with Olivier continued to grow — in English. Did “I love you” even mean the same thing as “je t’aime”?
The newly married couple relocated to Geneva, and Collins didn’t want to be “a Borat of a mother” who couldn’t even understand her own kids, so she decided to learn French at a Swiss language school.
This is where her memoir, When in French: Love in a Second Language begins. What ensues is a funny and surprising story about the lengths we go to for love and a chronicle of Collins’ exploration across history and culture as she learns French. Collins endures excruciating role-playing games with her classmates and accidentally tells her mother-in-law that she has given birth to a coffee machine, but eventually describes the joys of finally learning — and living — in French.
The author: Collins was an English major as an undergraduate, and is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she has covered everything from Michelle Obama to graffiti artist Banksy. This is her first book.
Opening lines: “I hadn’t wanted to live in Geneva. In fact, I had decisively wished not to, but there I was. Plastic ficuses flanked the entryway of the building. The corrugated brown carpet matched the matte brown framework of the elevator cage. The ground floor housed the offices of a psychiatrist and those of an iridologue—a practitioner of a branch of alternative medicine that popularized when, in 1861, a Hungarian physician noticed similar streaks of color in the eyeballs of a broken-legged man and a broken-legged owl. Our apartment was one story up.”
Reviews: Kirkus Reviews calls it “cleverly organized, well-written … As the memoir unfolds, Collins does not spare herself, sharing her apprehension and her missteps with candor and frequently with humor … Filled with pleasing passages in every chapter.”