Tag Archives: Foreign Tongue

Guest Post: Vanina Marsot and Foreign Tongue / Lip Gloss Giveaway! (5 Copies)

Back in June, I reviewed Foreign Tongue by Vanina Marsot. You can read the review here. After reviewing the novel, the one theme that I continued to go back to, was the brief mention of American endings and how they differed from French endings. In regards to books, I know a lot of people that won’t read a book if it doesn’t have a happy ending. I thought it would be fun to ask Ms. Marsot if she could give us her take on American endings so Book Chatter and Other Stuff welcomes Vanina Marsot!!


Musings on American vs. French Endings by Vanina Marsot

In my novel, Foreign Tongue, the main character asks a French friend, “Tell me, what’s it called in French when a film ends happily, but in a way you don’t believe?”

Her friend answers, “An American ending.”

I didn’t make it up: this really is a French expression. Now, it’s not necessarily derisive or reductive, though it can be; it’s also not necessarily an unpleasant thing: lots of movies with “American endings” play to packed houses in France, as they do the world over. But I think the fact that French has a specific expression for something we immediately recognize points to something interesting about the difference between the French and American mentality about stories and story-telling.

Of course, the easy extrapolation would be: American endings=happy, facile, crowd-pleasing, superficial; French endings=unhappy, complex, sophisticated, profound. And this easy extrapolation fits with some of the stereotypes we have about both cultures. But easy extrapolations aren’t worth much: after all, lots of American books and films have unhappy or ambiguous endings, and there seem to be more and more French films with deliberately happy endings designed to court the American public, particularly the Oscar-voting public.

I have nothing against a good happy ending, but what I do dislike, and what I think the character in my novel refers to with regard to a happy ending that you don’t believe, is something that concerns me in all stories: whether the ending stays true to a story’s internal spine. By this, I mean I like characters and plots to remain true to their essence, however that essence is defined by its creator. They must bend and flex according to the rules that their own existence makes possible. Unless I’m reading some particularly genre-bending kind of fiction, I expect fiction characters to behave like human beings and to do things that humans do: fall in love, fight, move to another city, grieve, be unpredictable, lose a job, recover from political scandal, etc. I’d be thrown for a loop if a character could suddenly fly, or if visitors from Mars showed up at a backyard barbecue, or if people’s heads became Quasar TV sets from the 70s.

By the same token, I also like plot to remain true to its specific universe. I like nothing more than to be surprised in a book: a plot twist, something I never saw coming, an unusual, original wrong turn. But the novel has to set up a world in which this is possible, even if you never saw it coming. That’s how I understand the French notion about the American ending: it points not so much to a predictability (we all know, for instance, that romantic comedies end well), but the sense that something has been forced on the story that may not honor the universe of the story in order to satisfy the requirements of the genre. That somehow, this mirror of the actual world we live in, in which happy endings are less frequent than we’d like and random tragedy and bad circumstances often interfere, has been bent and warped into submission in order to satisfy a longing for a fake, ideal world, where everyone lives happily ever after.

But then you have to ask: what is a “true” happy ending? In the classic sense, my book doesn’t have a happy ending: my heroine does not ride off into the sunset with a man. But it doesn’t strike me as an unhappy ending either: she rides into the sunset with a much better sense of who she is, which may be the best tool you can possibly have in terms of setting out to lead a fulfilling life, whether that means finding true love, or meaning and purpose.

Perhaps this point of view is formed by the longing for the thing we do not have. When I’m in France, I long for Mexican food and tuna melts; when I’m in the US, I miss the flakey croissants hot out of the oven from the boulangerie. One of my American friends in France often sighs in exasperation at movies that are “so French!” By this, she means that the story meanders in a seemingly pointless way, has no real (or satisfying) ending, has a tremendous amount of sometimes baffling subtext instead of story or plot ,and/or is deliberately artificial, calling attention to the artifice of filmmaking. This is a criticism I’ve heard the French level at their own oeuvres as well. I recently read a French novel that was one long, meandering letter to a former flame. While it was an interesting exercise, there was a tedium about reading it that no amount of beautiful language could overcome.

So perhaps there is an equivalent criticism we can level at the French, for being “so French.” While it’s true that life often is messy, storytelling is still a convention with certain requirements. And while they aren’t ironclad, perhaps one of those requirements is that a story actually conclude, end properly in a way that remains true to the story—whatever that means—as opposed to just exhausting itself, petering out, or taking a bizarre tangential leap in a seemingly random direction.

Of course, even as I write this, I want to contradict it, as I don’t like making grand pronouncements about how stories should work, but I remember something someone said to me a long time: “there’s a reason the narrative form continues: it’s because it works.” So maybe “guideline” is a better term: I think we all, both French and Americans, want a satisfying ending, one that we can believe. But maybe how we get there and what that means will continue to be as different and varied as our approaches to stories and writing.


GIVEAWAY DETAILS

UPDATE: this giveaway has ended! Thanks!

HarperCollins in conjunction with Book Club Girl have provided me with FIVE copies of Foreign Tongue to giveaway to my readers. In addition to the book, they have also provided some French-type lip gloss for each winner!

This giveaway is open to the U.S. and Canada. There are TWO ways to enter. Please follow the instructions carefully because I want every entry to count!

1. Post a comment for ONE entry. Make sure that I have a way to contact you.

2. For another entry, Tweet about this giveaway and be sure to include @TiBookChatter so I can track it. After you Tweet, post a comment here telling me you did so. This must be a separate comment.

This giveaway will run until Friday, July 31, 2009 at 10pm (PDT). The winner will be selected randomly and announced on Monday, August 3, 2009. I will contact the winner for his/her mailing address so be sure to include a way for me to contact you.

Good luck!!!

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Review: Foreign Tongue

Foreign Tongue: A Novel of Life & Love in Paris
By Vanina Marsot
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Pub. Date: April 2009
ISBN-13: 9780061673665

384pp

Here’s the blurb from Barnes and Noble:

Paris, the storybook capital of romance—of strolls down cobblestone streets and kisses by the Seine—may not be the ideal location to mend a wounded heart. But pragmatic professional writer Anna, who has been unlucky in love in L.A., has come here with keys to her aunt’s empty apartment. Bilingual and blessed with dual citizenship, she seeks solace in the delectable pastries, in the company of old friends, and in her exciting new job: translating a mysterious, erotic French novel by an anonymous author.

Intrigued by the story, and drawn in by the mystery behind the book, Anna soon finds herself among the city’s literati—and in the arms of an alluring Parisian—as she resolves to explore who she is . . . in both cultures.

The Short of It:

If a Hollywood ending is not your thing, then this book is just what the doctor ordered.

My Thoughts:

Back in April, I was lucky enough to hear Vanina Marsot at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. When she discussed her book, Foreign Tongue–what she described intrigued me. When we think of Paris, we think of romance, beauty, food and wine. There’s that, but there’s also a grittier side that we normally do not read about and when I heard that, I knew that I had to read this book.

After leaving a cheating boyfriend, Anna ends up in Paris. She lives rent free in her Aunt’s apartment, eats a lot of pastries, hangs out with friends and manages to fall in love with another man. On top of that, she finds a job translating an erotic novel from French to English. What’s not to love, right?

Well…there are some underground clubs. Clubs that basically focus on orgies and the like. When Anna’s friend suggests that they go to one, she isn’t interested at first, but after thinking about it for awhile, she decides that she is curious and wouldn’t mind checking the place out. Reading about the club was a bit bizarre but I have to admit that I was a bit curious too. I mean, do these places really exist? This is definitely a grittier, dirtier Paris than I ever imagined but at the same time, I could not pull myself away from it.

Let’s talk about Anna’s work for a bit. She is hired to translate an erotic novel from French to English. This proves to be quite a challenge! For one, the novel that she is translating sucks (what’s the French translation for that?). Finding the right word involves knowing how to interpret the intent of what is being said, and since Anna is only given one chapter at a time, she has a hard time coming up with the right words since she doesn’t know the end result.

There is a lot of French in this novel. Much of it is translated immediately by the author but some is not. I was surprised at how much French I remembered from my four years of French class. As I read each passage, I had fun trying to figure out what was being said. It gave me an appreciation of the language that I didn’t have before.

When Anna finds a new guy, it’s not all bells and whistles. Olivier is handsome and a bit mysterious but you can sense a darkness about him. He has secrets! As Anna visits with friends and attends all sorts of parties, she has her doubts about Olivier and as much as she wants to ignore them, she can’t.

Overall, this trip to Paris was a bit different than the other literary trips I have taken. It took me to places that I would not have gone on my own, but that is what adventure is all about.

I’ll end with this (at the end of page 287):

Anna : Tell me, what’s it called in French when a film ends happily but in a way that you don’t believe?

Clara (Anna’s Friend): An American ending.

Vanina Marsot writes and translates full-time and lives in Los Angeles and Paris, when not gallivanting about to far-flung corners of the world. If you’d like read more about Vanina Marsot, click here.

Thanks to Book Club Girl and HarperCollins for providing me with this review copy.