My book review of The Other Language by Francesca Marciano
Francesca Marciano’s The Other Language is essentially the literary and literal antithesis of Eat, Pray, Love—it upends the insufferable, Oprah-sanctified-and-sanctimonious trope of a privileged white woman who travels to exotic locales to “find herself” and replaces it with something all the more magical in its realism. The acclaimed author of Rules of the Wild gives us nine stories that conjure emotions and places with the kind of natural story-telling that eschews cheap grabs for our emotional investment, reliant on lachrymose and saccharine writing, and instead explore the truism that “home is really where they love you.” The vibrant characters in The Other Language travel across the globe, but the territory covered is far wider than merely geographical. The book is a beautifully-written testament to the absurdity of ideas like “finding yourself,” whether it be through travel, escapism, or intervention. The natural fluency and virtuosity of Marciano’s writing will take you on an engrossing journey and speak to you in a language you can viscerally understand.
In the title story, “The Other Language,” Emma is a 12-year-old girl who has recently lost her mother. She travels with her father and brother and sister from Italy to a summer vacation in a sleepy Greek village. The story presents the reader with one of the most trenchant and genuine examinations of death and how it thrusts those left behind into a social limelight that makes their personal pain all the more difficult. “The adults had decided they were too small to be told such dreadful particulars, as if their mother’s death was just another protocol they had to observe, like never ask for a soft drink unless they were offered one and never fish inside a lady’s handbag…They assumed death must be an impolite subject to bring up in conversation, a disgrace to be hidden, to be put behind.” To “survive the pain buried inside her was to become an entirely different person.”
On the Greek island, Emma develops a crush on an English boy…and of course, she must learn to speak English to communicate with him. Marciano’s touching description of Emma’s language teacher—Joni Mitchell, singing songs about “the wind is in from Africa,” is such a vivid picture of how people often learn a new language. Emma, “didn’t know what she was getting away from, but the other language was the boat she fled on.” “The Other Language” elegantly captures the indelible mark adolescence often leaves on our lives. Emma’s fascination with English causes her to move to America, where she “made sure to pick up every mannerism and colloquial expression that might polish her new identity.” The bitter-sweet melancholy and wistfulness one experiences when looking back is profoundly conveyed by Marciano’s writing.
The other stories in the book also share this theme of a seeming schism, unraveling, separation, followed by the discovery of something that perhaps was there all along. In, “Chanel,” which sort of recalled O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Three Magi,” for me, a woman buys a Chanel dress she cannot possibly afford. Eventually, she cannot possibly afford to part with this dress she has never worn, yet has now transformed into a talisman of sorts, one harkening to past “glories,” now long-gone. The dress is a reminder that finding out what is glorious simply requires a change of viewpoint. In “Big Island Small Island,” a man has escaped to an island off the coast of Tanzania. Marciano’s description of him as a “beached hippie” is incredibly humorous and apropos. Beached whale; beached hippie; beached human…all the same, in essence.
In another one of my favorite stories in the book, “The Presence of Men” is about the friendship between an extraordinary local seamstress and a divorced woman named Lara who escapes to a small Italian village after her divorce. Her past life keeps tearing at the seams of her new one, with everyone wondering what Lara is running away from, blaming it on all on some kind of a midlife, post-divorce crisis. Until she sheds the vestiges and togs of her past, everything else is only so much curtains…and obfuscation. Of course, there is yoga involved, too. But only in an incredibly hilarious way—Lara, a former yoga teacher, has the proverbial awakening that yoga is not about doing poses that give you a swollen knee (literally, in this case) and about forcing ideas about “living in the present” on yourself. Yoga happens when one isn’t paying attention to yoga. Yoga is realizing that you are not really trying to do anything with yourself.
The Other Languageexplores romantic relationships in a (mercifully) histrionic-less and melodramatic-free way (in case you are wondering why Oprah did not pick this book to sing paeans to instead of Eat, Pray, Love). The characters are all due for some big realizations; the locations are incidental to their process of disentangling. In “An Indian Soiree,” a husband and a wife decide to end their marriage, perhaps all too easily. Nothing catastrophic happens—apparently, they just choose to. “They had to say things to each other that would make turning back impossible and they obliged…How odiously clichéd it all sounded, and yet—at that very moment—so utterly real and satisfying.”
The stories are all of reinvention, but not the kind of clichéd, spoon-fed reinvention that comes seemingly all-too-readily in books like Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, the characters might be in exotic locales, but the locales are not the self-realization catalysts. “After seven years of European life, she found herself smiling at the predicament she’d found herself in. It was a reminder that there were still places in the world where one could vanish, be lost, be found and rescued by strangers.” The reinvention often comes only by seeing things that were already there—in that sense, this book will not give you “why am I not traveling” complex. You don’t need to incinerate all vestiges of your “comfortable” life to travel far, as long as you can do that some of that traveling sitting at home, it suggests.
Marciano is not in the business of cheaply tugging at the heartstrings, but her deceptively simple and evocative prose will do that effortlessly and pull you along on a tour-de-force journey rich with sensory details like, “the pots of basil on the windowsills to keep the mosquitoes away.”