When New Yorker staff writer Lauren Collins moved to London, she thought that would be the farthest she’d ever be, both physically and culturally, from her native Wilmington, North Carolina. Then she met Olivier. “Soon I was living with a man who used Chanel deodorant and believed it was a consensus view that Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was on account of the rain,” she writes in her wry memoir, When in French.
Collins and Olivier established their relationship in England, a somewhat neutral zone: his continent, her language. But when his job took the couple to Geneva, Collins began to realize that she could no longer put off learning French. It wasn’t just because she was shut out of everyday life in Geneva or because she had mistakenly implied in a note to her mother-in-law that she had given birth to a coffeemaker—without knowing French, she was unable to truly understand her husband. “Talking to you in English is like touching you with gloves,” says Olivier.
So Collins embarks on a quest to learn French, starting with a language class and working her way up to newscasts and episodes of “The Voice: La Plus Belle Voix” on TF1.
In between unsparing recitals of her pratfalls and triumphs on the road to conquering her husband’s langue maternelle, Collins flashes back through their relationship, exploring its cultural divide. She also investigates the questions that her pursuit raises. Does speaking a different language change who you are as a person? How does language shape a culture? She visits the Académie française, researches an Amazonian tribe that requires its members to marry into a different language group and unearths other tidbits of trivia and history that will fascinate lovers of words and language.
Still, 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.