I have a hard time getting immersed in nonfiction books, but Collins’s debut pulled me in and charmed the pants off me. Part memoir, part meditation on language and love, this seemingly slim book is dense with knowledge and heart. While living abroad in London, Collins falls in love with a Frenchman, and together they move to Switzerland, where she finally learns to speak her husband’s language. Though her personal story is deeply romantic and envy-inducing, Collins keeps her retelling grounded and wry (she decides to learn French after hearing Bradley Cooper speak it fluently on a talk show). Interspersed throughout are gems about the way language shapes our perspectives, from the way we see color to the ease with which we learn math. Collins draws the threads between intimacy and fluency so taut and fine that by the end of the book I felt like no matter what language she was speaking, I’d want to listen and understand.
A language barrier is no match for love. Lauren 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 accidently 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, it turns out, 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.
About the Author
Lauren Collins began working at TheNew Yorker in 2003 and became a staff writer in 2008. Her subjects have included Michelle Obama, Donatella Versace, the graffiti artist Banksy, and the chef April Bloomfield. Since 2010, she has been based in Europe, covering stories from London, Paris, Copenhagen, and beyond.
“New Yorker staff writer Lauren Collins’s terrific memoir, When in French: Love in a Second Language, depicts bilingual romance with fresh asperity: “What was an ‘expat’ but an immigrant who drinks at lunch?”.” —Vogue.com
“A thoughtful, beautifully written meditation on the art of language and intimacy. The book unfolds like several books in one: on moving abroad, on communication in human relationships, on the history of language, and in the end, on the delights of cross-cultural fusion.”—The New York Times Book Review
“An ambitious and entertaining meditation on the ways in which love and language make us who we are…[Collins] weaves together personal, historical, and sociological anecdotes with ease, roving nimbly between awkward interfamilial interactions, neo-Whorfian theory, the comically tortured inner workings of the Académie française, and far beyond…Collins’ writing is endlessly, delightfully rich. She’s mastered love in her second language—and crafted a masterpiece in her first. Surely you’ll fall for this book too.”—Buzzfeed
“[The book] takes off when Collins throws herself into language classes and funny Franglish conversations with her in-laws. She takes an amusing side trip to L’Academie Française, France’s language police, to watch a committee try to come up with a substitute for the invasive English expression ‘business as usual.’ Gradually, fitfully, it all comes together.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“[An] engaging and surprisingly meaty memoir…When in French ranges from the humorously personal to a deeper look at various theories of language acquisition and linguistics…There’s far more to Collins’ book than screwball comedy, and those who have weathered linguistic crossings themselves are apt to find particular resonance in its substantive inquiry into language, identity, and transcultural translation.”—NPR.org
“Collins offers up her own love affair as a case study, applying the tools of the social sciences to her life, and offering, along the way, a primer on linguistics and semantics and a cultural history of language. But if that makes When in French sound boring or academic, I’ve given you the wrong impression: Collins’s memoir is anything but dull. She’s analytical, but never clinical, with a reporter’s keen ear for nuance, and her curiosity about words—the meaning beneath their meaning—is infectious.”—Vogue
“Collins’ memoir, frequently funny, overflows with ideas about culture and communication.”—Newsday
“This gorgeous, finely woven memoir explores the gaps between words and worlds.”—Refinery29
“We can't all fall in love with a dashing Frenchman and move to France, but that's what Lauren Collins found herself doing when she met Olivier. This delightful memoir explores the New Yorker staff writer's experience learning the French language—and the culture and people besides.”—Elle.com
“In her emotional, erudite memoir…[Collins] documents her linguistic labors, including the missteps–she accidentally tells her mother-in-law she gave birth to a coffeemaker–on the road to mastery. At times she expounds on the history and philosophy of language; at others, it feels like catching up with a clever friend you haven’t seen since college. But the most intriguing question posed is as much about identity as language: Are you someone else when you speak and live in a non-native tongue?”—TIME
“A collection of musings on translation, linguistics, and cultural identity, all underpinned by a satisfying love story…Collins’s is the best kind of memoir: the kind that uses the author’s own experience as an entryway to—and a bridge between—a number of universal topics.”—Brooklyn Rail
“Part memoir, part cultural exploration, this heartwarming read will appeal to romantics and lovers of language alike.”—RealSimple.com
“Woven into Collins’s poignant—and often laugh-out-loud funny—personal story of trial and erreur is a primer on pop linguistics, with meditations on whether the language we speak affects the way we think and feel.”—Departures
“An exceptionally insightful meditation on how language informs culture and personality. It’s a lovely read that gets better the more you sit with it.”—Jason Zinoman, The New York Times
“[A] wry memoir…[Collins] unearths other tidbits of trivia and history that will fascinate lovers of words and language…The heart of the book lies in Collins’ personal story, which she tells with humor, humility and a deep affection for the people and cultures involved. Whether she’s describing the grinding exhaustion of learning a foreign language or the euphoria of a breakthrough, her determination makes the reader root for her. When in French is both an entertaining fish-out-of-water story and a wise and insightful look at the way two very different people and families manage to find common ground.”—BookPage
“Cleverly organized, well-written…As the memoir unfolds, Collins does not spare herself, sharing her apprehensions and her missteps with candor and frequently with humor…Filled with pleasing passages in every chapter.”—Kirkus
“[A] smart memoir…on how the languages we speak shape who we are…[Collins’s] writing is…elegant and exact.”—Publishers Weekly
“A memoir of the New Yorker writer’s experience falling in love with a French banker and winding up in Geneva, recounted in [Collins’s] distinctive and deeply intelligent mix of insight and humor.” —Thomas Chatterton Williams, The Nation’s What to Read This Summer
“A linguistic love story…Lauren Collins captures the thrilling vertigo of trying to be yourself in a foreign language. She’s an expert storyteller and an excellent traveling companion.” —Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting
“Lauren Collins is one of the smartest, most humane, most charming writers I know. Nobody is more observant of fine details, or more curious about the big picture. In When in French, we finally see her mad skills and effortless touch on display in a book-length memoir— a love story about a person, a language, and a whole form of cultural knowledge. Collins makes the world seem like a bigger, more effervescent, more intoxicating place. “—Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
“As a (sadly) monolingual American, I devoured Lauren Collins’s sharp, funny tale of bilingual romance and learning to speak French. Part acerbic love letter to that language and part meditation on language itself, When in French is so charming it made me want to learn French too.”—Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.: A Novel
“That anyone can actually communicate with anyone is a miracle. When in French is a hilarious and intelligent book that delves into the history of language, falling in love, and by the way includes words like Ribuy-tibuy. Gumusservi. Komorebi and Schnapsidee.”—Maira Kalman, author and illustrator of Beloved Dog and The Principles of Uncertainty
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