- - Sunday, April 13, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE OTHER LANGUAGE
By Francesca Marciano
Pantheon, $24.95, 304 pages

The title “The Other Language” prompts the question, “What other language?” The answer is English — at least for Emma, the Italian teenager of the title story.

She picks up some words from English boys while on vacation in Greece. Back home, she struggles to learn more so she can talk to them when they meet the following year. Soon after her return, she can speak it. “It was like an infant going from blabber to complete sentences in just a few weeks, letting the brain do its job in its mysterious way. It came like a flow.”

Emma later settles in the United States, where she speaks English with virtually no accent. She has made herself anew, obscuring the tragedies of her early life. Nonetheless, she is displaced, and for all her apparent assurance, she cannot reliably find her way.

Neither can most of Francesca Marciano’s other protagonists. They live in other countries or with new or broken relationships. Like competent speakers of a foreign language, they cope — brilliantly sometimes — but their stories show they are never entirely sure-footed; pitfalls open at their feet.

Getting back to firmer ground is hard. Another young Italian woman arrives in New York to study, falls in love with the city and stays to teach Italian. Yet she doesn’t truly blend in. “It was a question of attitude. Of posture, even.”

She writes a book called “The Italian System,” in which she explains the secrets of Italian style and warmth: they eat fresh food; they don’t wear sneakers and baseball caps; they don’t ruin their clothes by sticking them in tumbler dryers.

Then she goes to visit her mother in Rome. Guess what? It’s all changed: Italians are wearing sneakers and eating fast food. She has already learned that “[b]eing self-conscious, afraid to make a faux pas [is] the inherent condition of anybody unmoored from the familiar, and living in a place that is home to others.” Back in Rome, she realizes that places, no more than people, stay fixed in time.

The relationship between people and place is central in other stories. A woman seeks out a former lover, now living on a remote African island with a young Muslim wife. He’s no longer accessible as the man she knew. A married couple split while on a luxurious vacation in India. She contacts an old lover in Paris; he falls in love with an Indian dancer. After a few weeks, their dreams have passed. They are back home and in a divorce court.

One of the best stories in the book, “The Presence of Men,” is set in a remote Italian village that strikes just-divorced Lara as a charming place to make a home. She utterly mistakes what’s important to the people there until her neighbor Mina, an exquisitely talented seamstress, puts down her needle and refuses to work for a film star client who failed to name her when he won a best-dressed award.

Mina had wanted the glory of acknowledgment. Lara had wanted to patronize her and the village. By the end of the story, she has learned what to do to make a life there.

Disappointment like Mina’s is also at the heart of “Chanel,” a gem of a tale about a young filmmaker who buys an expensive and utterly beautiful Chanel dress to wear to an awards ceremony. It suits her perfectly, but she doesn’t get to wear it at the event, and it hangs in her closet for years as the physical manifestation of the career that might have been.

Could it still happen? Could anything else demand such a dress?

The perfection of this tale is as thrilling as the dress it celebrates. It has so much: not just the dress, but a gorgeous conjuration of Venice, a delicious sketch of the friend who encourages the reckless purchase and a delicate and powerful evocation of the life of 20- and 30-somethings, who have ambition and talent and hope and a gold ring still to grasp.

A lesser writer could have woven a novel from this, and even more so from the stories of Emma or Lara or the three stories set in Africa. Instead, Francesca Marciano has used the tightness of the short story to focus sharply on the places where her characters find themselves and the effect of those places on their sense of self. Foreign places are not backgrounds or settings; they are participants, affecting the protagonists as much as or more than anything else in their lives.

This is one of those truths that can be hard to see — or easy to discount. It is brought sharply into focus by Francesca Marciano’s steely handling of language and her pellucid evocation of place in the nine stories collected in “The Other Language.”

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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