Lauren Collins didn’t speak French when she married a Frenchman. He spoke fluent English, and they lived in London, so no problem. But then they wound up in Switzerland, a country with four official languages, none of which was English. Big problem.

There begins “When in French,” a story about love and language. Collins, a writer for the New Yorker magazine, mixes memoir with a larger look at how languages define and divide people.

“Talking to you in English is like touching you with gloves,” her husband, Olivier, says at one point.

Chapters are broken down by tense, from the past perfect to the future, and the story lags a bit in the past. But it 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. “Four years after having met Olivier, I’m hearing his voice for the first time,” she says. Magnifique!


Maureen McCarthy is a metro editor at the Star Tribune.

When in French
By: Lauren Collins.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 243 pages, $27.