Vanina Marsot's first novel, "Foreign Tongue," is a rare and canny creature: a brainy, sexy, romantic comedy of letters -- albeit one whose plot is set in motion too predictably by a humiliating breakup with a cheating boyfriend.
Anna, its heroine, wouldn't be quite so eager to escape Los Angeles if said cheater hadn't recently become pop culture's latest It Boy, his image taunting her from magazine covers. To nurse her wounded heart, she flees to Paris, keys to her aunt's empty apartment in hand. Courtesy of her French father, Anna has dual citizenship; she knows the language and the city, and she has friends there.
When she needs a job, the owner of a bookshop near the Palais du Luxembourg hires her to translate into English an erotic roman a clef by a well-known man whose identity is to remain a secret from her. So assiduously guarded is the text that it's doled out to her a chapter at a time. To us, it becomes a book within a book, and we watch as Anna confronts the issues that bedevil anyone trying to fully and richly convey in one language something that is said in another.
With an American translator as its heroine and an intrigue about authorship at its center, "Foreign Tongue" could hardly be more enamored of literature and the nuances of language. When those things are somehow concerned with sex and affairs of the heart, so much the better.
It's a spirit perfectly captured by the epigraph to an early chapter, a question posed in French by novelist and critic Frederic Beigbeder, fluidly translated by Marsot: "Why do your knees make me want to invent transitive verbs?"
For Marsot, who splits her time between Los Angeles and Paris and has worked as a translator of television and film scripts, translation is more than a subject. It's a task she sets herself here, studding "Foreign Tongue" with French words and passages. She manages, rather astonishingly, to make her meanings clear to readers who don't speak the language while avoiding the trap of over-explaining to those who do.
"You translate a whole culture when you translate a novel," an acquaintance tells Anna, so it's a boon to her work, not to mention her mood, that she soon falls hard for the tall, square-jawed actor-director Olivier Vallant, whose numerous attractions include a habit of assembling delectable breakfasts while she sleeps.
But Anna is a bit of a rube at love, easily taken in by charm and good looks, willing to ignore what common sense tells her she ought at least to investigate. There is, for example, Olivier's unhealthily avid interest in the novel she's translating. And is he still involved with the famous, older, married actress he's directing in a play, even if he says their romance is through?
Anna's avoidance of confrontation enables Marsot to sustain such ambiguities and draw out suspense as she sprinkles the narrative with red herrings -- about Olivier, about the anonymous author and his novel and about the strange behavior of Anna's closest friend in Paris, an editor in his 60s whom she long ago nicknamed Bunny. (The name is forced on the character in the interest of foreshadowing. It's a gratingly too-cute appellation for a dignified man well over 6 feet tall; it does, however, perfectly set up a poignant line more than 300 pages in.)
As the book Anna is translating shifts from erotic adventure to love story to something darker and more searching, so does her daily life. Whether the parallels are the product of coincidence, the unknown novelist's design or her own perception is a puzzle that pulls the reader along.
Occasionally Marsot's structure creaks, as when Anna keeps lucking into strangers who raise convenient points about translation, or when she turns mercurial in moments that feel engineered for the plot. But this grown-up smart-girl fantasy is generally well constructed. It's fun too.
"Tell me," Anna asks a friend, "what's it called in French when a film ends happily but in a way you don't believe?"
"An American ending," the friend replies.
Anna doesn't get an American ending, not in that sense. But she and Marsot are both straddling cultures. If the moonlit Parisian finish to "Foreign Tongue" is a little Hollywood, who says that's a bad thing?