Hailed by The New York Times as “a natural-born storyteller,” the acclaimed author of Rules of the Wild gives us nine incandescently smart stories, funny, elegant, and poignant by turns, that explore the power of change—in relationships, in geographies, and across cultures—to reveal unexpected aspects of ourselves.
Taking us to Venice during film festival season, where a woman buys a Chanel dress she can barely afford; to a sun-drenched Greek village at the height of the summer holidays, where a teenager encounters the shocks of first love; and to a classical dance community in southern India, where a couple gives in to the urge to wander, these remarkable tales bring to life characters stepping outside their boundaries into new passions and destinies. Enlivened by Francesca Marciano’s wit, clear eye, and stunning evocations of people and places, The Other Language is an enthralling tour de force rich with many pleasures.
from The Presence of Men
The bells woke Lara up at seven. When she opened her eyes under the tall vaulted ceiling, for a split second she felt as though she were inside a church. It had been her first night in the new house in the village and she’d slept beautifully.
She was emerging from the shower in her plum-colored, Moroccan-style bathroom when she heard a vigorous knock at the front door. Still dripping wet, she ran down in her robe, crossed the courtyard and opened the old wooden door, which had been painstakingly sandpapered and waxed. A small woman of indefinite age, with an old-fashioned perm, her body shaped like a box, was staring at her.
“You are the person who bought this house?” she asked, her voice loud as a trumpet. She was a local, as Lara could tell from her accent. She nodded.
“Ha ha! At last you are here in person!” the little woman said with a cruel smile and slid herself inside the courtyard like an eel.
“For months all I’ve been seeing are your builders. Very rude people. Where do they come from?”
“Martano, I think. Why?” Lara wondered if the small woman had come to give her some kind of fine, although she wore no uniform.
“I knew it. Martano people are all thieves.”
“I’m so sorry, signora. Was there a problem?”
The woman ignored her and proceeded to take a long, critical look at the potted plants that filled the courtyard, at the indigo blue table and matching chairs that Lara had spotted in a magazine and bought online. She closely examined the pale dusty mauve of the walls, a hue that had cost days of trial and error.
“I see you have changed everything in here.”
Lara wasn’t sure where this might be leading.
“Well, I have restored the place. It was a ruin.”
The woman ignored her and peered some more. “My great-aunt lived in this house,” she said.
She brushed the smooth surface of the wall, then moved swiftly toward the glass door of what used to be the barn and glanced inside.
“She used to keep her donkey in there,” she said, pointing at the space.
“Oh yes? Well, that’s the living room now.”
“She never married, she worked very hard all her life. She was a very clever woman.”
Lara tried a friendlier expression. All this might be pretty sweet, after all. “So you knew this place from the time she lived here? How nice. Would you like to see what it looks like now?”
Lara opened the glass door, which gave into the ex-barn-now-living-room, but the woman was already snooping inside the kitchen on the opposite side of the courtyard.
“I knew this place like the back of my hand. We used to play in here all the time when we were children.”
She stepped into the kitchen and Lara followed her. There were still unopened boxes on the floor; the stainless steel surfaces of the brand-new appliances glinted in the shady room. The woman gave a yelp.
“See! I had heard from people you had done this, but I wanted to see for myself.”
“Had done what?” Lara asked.
The woman was glaring at the opposite wall.
“This thing you have done in here, is a mortal sin.”
By now, had she been in Rome, Lara would have normally lost her patience and asked her to leave, but it was her first contact with any of her neighbors in the village and she sensed she’d reached a delicate intersection that required some caution.
“A mortal sin!” the little woman repeated in a thundering voice.
“Please have a seat. Can I offer you a cup of coffee?”
“Okay. Then please, what is it that I did?”
“The forno. You tore it down.”
Lara crossed her arms.
“Yes I did, the architect . . . my friend,” she said, but immediately regretted bringing an architect into the conversation. “It was as big as a room. It took up too much space, it took half the courtyard.”
But the woman was right; when, a year earlier, Lara had bought the house in the heart of the village, she’d taken Silvana, her architect friend, to see it. She was a towering woman in her forties with flaming hennaed hair who on principle never came off her high heels, especially when marching through building sites (“height gains you respect, it’s Pavlovian”). Silvana had paced inside the old building not uttering a sound, with an air of concern. Maybe it was just her way, or maybe she didn’t approve of the house. Lara had begun to worry. Silvana had taken one look at the opening of the gigantic wood oven in the kitchen and before Lara could say anything she’d climbed inside it with the speed of a crab, holding her flashlight.
“It’s gigantic. And totally useless,” her voice had boomed from the dark interior, like Jonah’s from inside the whale.
She’d reappeared, her clothes coated in blackish dust, then effortlessly slid out of the oven mouth. She had a big grin on her face.
“Good. We can gain some space. I feel a lot better now.”
So the forno went down, and what was once a dark chamber was now a third of her courtyard.
The little woman waved her index finger at Lara like a mad evangelist.
“You tore down the last oven of this village to gain a little space for your plants. That forno was a public monument. It was part of our history!”
The woman shook her head with disdain.
“Yes, I was told this room was the village bakery. But as I told you the wood oven took half the space of the courtyard. I mean, it went from here all the way to . . .” Lara made a sweeping arc with her hand across the expanse of the courtyard.
“This was not a bakery. It was a communal oven. An oven where people could bring their own loaves of bread. Bread and pies, so that my aunt could bake for them. She only charged ten, twenty liras a piece. We all came here as children with our tins, everyone did, every Saturday . . .”
“Did you? How nice. So, what did . . .” Lara loved stories like this, it was part of what had drawn her to the village in the first place. But the woman was talking right over her question.
“ . . . And in winter, when it was really cold, this was the warmest room in the whole village, so we sat in that corner, see? My aunt used to have a wooden bench right there.”
The woman gestured to the wall where now sat the dishwasher still sheathed in its cardboard box.
“My aunt would give us sweets while we waited. In the summer we’d wait outside in the garden, and we’d play with the donkey. This is how things were in this village up until only forty, fifty years ago.”
The little woman grabbed a chair and slumped on it, hands entwined on her lap. Her feet barely touched the ground. Lara was beginning to feel it had been a mistake to let this creature in. Obviously this was only the beginning of something far more serious than Lara had envisaged.
The little woman went on. “But of course, what do you care? You people come from the outside and assume everything here is up for sale and you think you have a right to take it down, rip it all up as you please. You even bring your own architect to destroy our history!”
Lara stared at the little woman, shocked. This was truly a disgrace. She’d come to this village with the best intentions, eager to learn and respect the local culture and traditions. And now—barely twenty-four hours after she’d moved in—she was already facing the enormity of her first mistake.
“Senta signora, I’m sorry about the wood oven,” Lara said. “I had no idea how important it was. In fact nobody told me. I’m really sorry, I . . . I wish I had known before, is all I can say.”
It was true: the local real-estate agent—a young man with overly gelled hair and two cell phones constantly ringing—hadn’t said a word about the oven being part of the village history, had made no mention of the old lady with a donkey who baked for the community; he didn’t mention village women and children taking their tins of pies and bread into what was now her stainless steel kitchen.
“Why did you buy a house here?” the woman asked, a prosecutor for the defendant.
Lara widened her arms, resigned.
“Because I love this village and I wanted to preserve this beautiful house.” She breathed in a bit and continued, “Which by the way would’ve crumbled had I not bought it.”
The woman didn’t balk; she shook her head.
“You people don’t come here to buy property because you love it. You come because it’s cheaper.”
Such was Lara’s welcome to her new life in the house she’d bought right after her divorce.
Excerpted from The Other Language by Francesca Marciano. Copyright © 2014 by Francesca Marciano. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
FRANCESCA MARCIANO is the author of the novels Rules of the Wild, Casa Rossa, and The End of Manners. She lives in Rome.
1. How does the very first, and title, story of the collection explore the chasms and common ground that can be found between different cultures through language? Consider Emma’s observation of how her brother Luca and Nadia relate—“They no longer needed a common language to get along”—and her own almost magical, unconscious assimilation of English (11). What happens to people when they are forced to speak a language not their own—do they stay the same or become someone else?
2. In “The Other Language,” the three siblings who lose their mother at a very young age assume that “death must be an impolite subject to bring up in conversation, a disgrace to be hidden, to be put behind” (7). How does this belief affect Emma’s developing relationships with her brother and sister; her father, David; and later, Jack? What are the other characters’ relationships to loss and to death?
3. Travel is the jumping-off point for many of the stories. How are characters both bound and liberated by a sense of “home”?
4. What are some reasons people in these stories travel, alone or with others—physically as well as metaphorically? Consider Stella in “Big Island, Small Island,” Lara in “The Presence of Men,” and Mrs. D’Costa in “The Club.”
5. What do you think is behind the way that Pascal and Caterina play their game in boutiques, in “Chanel”? Is the promise of Caterina’s dress fulfilled, even indirectly, by the story’s end? Why or why not? And what does Venice as a particular location add to this story?
6. What roles do clothes and “dressing up” play in one’s ambitions and sense of self and identity in “Chanel,” and throughout the collection? Consider what being “in fashion” means in the stories “The Presence of Men,” “An Indian Soirée,” and “Roman Romance” as well as this
7. Similarly, what role does music play, especially rock and roll, in helping various characters uncover their desires and achieve idealized versions of themselves? Consider “Roman Romance” and “An Indian Soirée” as well.
8. How does Marciano’s own background, as an Italian who writes in English, inform her narrative style? Could you sense this multicultural, and even specifically Italian, point of view in the way she observes the world, draws her characters (Italians and non-Italians alike), and uses English to describe certain ideas, places, or people?
9. In “Big Island, Small Island,” what is it about seeing Andrea in his new environment that makes Stella so uncomfortable? Is it only the place itself and the way Africa changed him, or is it something else, perhaps having to do with Stella herself?
10. How would Andrea and Stella’s reunion have been different without Carlo Tescari’s presence? Who really is the biggest “outsider” among the characters in this story (91)?
11. What changes the relationship between Lara and Mina in “The Presence of Men”? Are they united more by their vulnerability toward and attraction to men, or their resistance to them?
12. What does Lara mean when she says that “delayed pain was the story of her life: it was exactly for this reason some people had called her an optimist and others a fool” (147)? Who is most responsible for this pain? And do you think Lara’s behavior around Leo and Ben makes her seem more optimistic or foolish?
13. Many of Marciano’s protagonists are women. What does looking so closely through that lens tell us about the nature of relationships today? How does the husband’s point of view in “An Indian Soirée” add to the collection’s representation of love and desire, as well as marital and midlife dissatisfaction—what he calls “this lack of want for life” (172)?
14. How does this story’s structure of alternating perspectives reveal the couple’s fundamental misunderstandings of each other? Do you think it was their trip to India, a place with “too many layers, multiple souls, [and] myriad messages” that caused an inevitable rupture, or might they have stayed together if they’d never left home (178)?
15. What are the short- and long-term effects of racial and ethnic stereotypes on the characters in “The Club”?
16. For Mrs. D’Costa, is it more harmful or soothing to feel nostalgia for her old self and old life with her late husband, Victor? How does she turn her wounds both past and present into positive energy, despite her losses?
17. How does Marciano capture the way people from different cultures interpret foreign behaviors and customs, both seriously but also in a humorous sense? Consider the book the narrator in “The Italian System” is writing, and her take on American as well as Italian culture. How do both sets of interpretations get upended by the story’s ending?
18. In “Quantum Theory,” what comfort does Sonia find in being in a place, and finding love, where “one could vanish, be lost, be found and rescued by strangers” (249)?
19. What is so painful about the way Drew breaks up with Elsa in “Roman Romance,” and about the confusion that comes from the megahit song people think is about her? Consider both the painting Judith Slaying Holofernes and the story’s eponymous song. What do they both suggest to you about the role of art and artifice in fashioning a sense of identity?