Love and Other Foreign Words, by Erin McCahan
This book made me wish I’d taken sociolinguistics in university. Trust me, this is a good thing.
Josie is 15, gifted, the youngest of three sisters, and obsessed with languages and translation. Not just English vs. French or Spanish, but the variations of the English language that make up the different parts of her life. She is most comfortable speaking Josie, but also understands the languages of High School and College (called, respectively, Ohmig*d and Ohmig*d 2.0), Boyfriends and Beautiful Girls. About Josie’s sister and friend, she says: “Sophie and Maggie, to varying degrees of formality, speak the language of beautiful women. I can translate it because I grew up hearing it, but it is not my mother tongue.”
The lens of different languages (or maybe different dialects?) works well to show Josie’s perspective of the people around her. Genius-level smarts run in her family, so she and her friend, Stu, take some classes at a nearby college, including Intro to Sociolinguistics. I’m a sucker for any book that takes teen angst and looks at it from an academic point of view (see John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, or Maryrose Wood’s Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love). In this case, Josie’s social interactions are informed by her sociolinguistic understanding of the way her peers talk:
Take the phrase cool or that’s cool, for example, which Stefan […] says, or said, all the time. Depending on how, when, and where, it has meant:
1. That’s really interesting.
2. I approve or like that.
3. I’ve never heard or seen that before.
4. I guess I don’t mind.
Seriously, how great is that?
I picked up this book thinking it was a romance (and it does have romantic elements in it, with a dénouement so good that I read the ending three times) but Josie spends much of the book trying to navigate all the different meanings of the word “love.” When her beloved older sister Kate announces her engagement to a man Josie can’t stand, hilarity and poignancy ensue in equal parts. McCahan does a fantastic job of capturing Josie and Kate’s relationship. They bicker and fight and disagree and love each other unconditionally and it’s a beautiful thing.
Josie and her sisters and friends and family are the kind of completely unique characters that readers will be able to relate to all the better because of their originality. That’s Reviewer for “I loved this book.”