Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan

Love and Other Foreign Words is a delightful book about a young woman trying to understand the nature of love just as she experiences her first love and comes to terms with her older sister's upcoming marriage.

But Josie can't figure out how someone knows they are in love. And she certainly can't understand how her older sister Kate could possibly be in love with Geoffrey Stephen Brill.How can she possibly learn the language of love?

Fifteen year old Josie Sheridan has an IQ of 154, making her a genius. Josie lives with her parents in Bexley, a tony suburb of Columbus, Ohio. Her mom is an instructor at The Ohio State University's College of Nursing. She has two older sisters, Magdeleine (Maggie) who is a pediatrician and married to Ross, a pediatric endocrinologist and Katriane (Kate) who is a drug sales representative for a pharmaceutical company.

Josie spends a great deal of her time at her neighbour, Stu Wagemaker's, house which is across the street from hers. According to Josie, sixteen year old Stu is a "love-'em-and-leave-'em type" having had many girlfriends over a short period of time. Stu however insists he is not.

The novel opens with Kate visiting her family for dinner and telling everyone about her boyfriend Geoff. Kate wants her family to meet Geoff whom she is very serious about and arranges for her and Geoff to come to dinner on the following Friday. Dinner on Friday proves to be a disaster to Josie who takes an immediate dislike to Geoff especially after she discovers that Kate is engaged to be married to this strange man. Geoff who is the director of the medical library at Mount Carmel West, doesn't help matters much with his highbrow, intellectual attitude. Intending to impress Kate's parents he introduces himself as Geoffrey Stephen Brill and spends the evening attempting to impress the Sheridan's with his knowledge of a vast array of topics. In a hilarious exchange, Josie proves to be a match for him in terms of intelligence and wit. Josie can't understand the language of Geoff any more than she can understand the language of Kate loving him. He's an insufferable dork and all Josie knows is that she has to make Kate see this.

Josie's father encourages her to give Geoff "more of a chance than this one evening", but Josie is determined to stop Kate's marriage. When she calls Kate to try to talk her out of the marriage, Kate reminds Josie that she is only fifteen and has no real experience with love, something Josie is keenly aware of. She has gone out with exactly three people in her life, including Stefan Kott who revealed to her that he asked her to the homecoming dance because she was tall. 

Josie and Stu, who both have I.Q.'s in the 150's, attend classes at Capital University, nicknamed Cap. They are just finishing their freshman year as part of their high school's Early College Program, meaning they will graduate from high school later but finish college earlier. Their mornings are spent at Cap and they return to Bexley High in the afternoons. Josie has a fascination with language and has declared her major at Cap as Romance languages. She is constantly exploring how people relate to one another in terms of language. The language of high school is Ohmig*d because this phrase is used so much for so many meanings. Now if Kate could only figure out the language of Geoff and figure out how the language of Kate has changed.

In order to gain some experience in love, Josie asks Stu's sister, Sophie, to find her a date for prom. That date turns out to be Stefan. Josie tells Stu that she's having a hard time relating to Stefan. Stu advises her that "Relationships are tricky. You need to speak the same language. Or learn each other's, but that doesn't always work."  They hand out a few times and see each other at school but Josie finds herself struggling to connect with Stefan and to learn his language. While they try to see each before prom, Josie's upcoming dinner with Kate and Stefan's plans prevent them from doing so.

Josie goes to visit Kate at her condo in German Village with plans to shop for a prom dress and spend the evening together. However, the night turns into a disaster starting with Kate telling Josie that she's not only going to have to get contacts for the wedding but also have her ears pierced. And the surprise she planned turns out to be Geoff cooking dinner - a dinner that ends up in his lap, along with a glass of wine.The resulting catastrophe leaves Kate not talking to Josie who insists to their mother that it was all an accident.

On prom night Kate does eventually show up before Josie and Stefan leave for the dance. The prom turns out to be a turning point for Josie and Stefan when he confesses to Josie that he could fall in love with her. But when he asks Josie if she feels the same way she has no idea what to say, because as it turns out she doesn't feel that way at all about him. Prom results in two break-ups, Sarah breaks off with Stu and Stefan breaks up with Josie.

Josie and Stu return to classes in the fall, as seniors in high school and sophomores at Cap. Stu has broken up with Amanda Meyers, seeming to prove Josie's assertion about the type of guy he is, while his sister Sophie has broken up with Adam Gibson and is "determined to fall in love with Josh Brandstetter". But when Josie arrives for her soc class at Cap she instantly falls for a new guy, Ethan Glaser who turns out to be the instructor for the course. Despite the age difference (Ethan is 10 years older) Josie is certain what she feels for Ethan is love as they seem to speak the same language. Over the time of the course, Josie discovers that Ethan seems to understand what it's like to be gifted. At the sidelines is Stu whom Josie has noticed has filled out over the summer and grown a beard.

As Kate's wedding approaches, Kate becomes increasingly critical of Josie's appearance which only serves to push Josie even more against her wedding to Geoff.  Even during Josie's sixteenth birthday dinner, Kate continues to talk about her wedding. To help her cope with the changes going on in her life, her dad gives Josie a journal to write down her feelings. Kate and Josie's relationship finally collapses into war when Kate's criticism of Josie in front her bridesmaids, her mother and the seamstress at a fitting push Josie to tears. She shows Kate that she will ruin her day if she doesn't stop leading to an escalating series of threats between the two. During this time Josie begins to work out her feelings for Ethan but also comes to a realization about Stu, who has silently been waiting while speaking her language all along.

Readers will find the first half of Love and Other Foreign Words funny before the novel gets down to more seriousness in the second half as Josie attempts to determine what love is and come to terms with her sister's marriage. Josie and her friends struggle to understand the nature of love while coming to the realization of some truths about love. For example, after Emily Newall breaks up with Nick Adriani and then days later, reconciles with him, she tells Josie that love and hate are very similar and that you can feel both at the same time. Josie puzzles over Stu dating girls for a short period of time only to inexplicably dump them, until later in the novel she learns why it is that he does this. When Josie finds herself attracted to Ethan, at first she believes this is love or could lead to love but later on, in a truly heartrending conversation with her sister, Josie begins to doubt that what she feels is love. That is confirmed when Kate cruelly sets up Ethan with her best friend Madison Orr,  partly in an act of revenge and partly to show Josie that he is too old for her and that what she feels is a crush.

As Josie ponders what she feels for Ethan and what Kate and Geoff have, she comes to realize that people know they are in love when they speak the same language. Josie realizes that Kate and Geoff speak the same language and it does not include her. This is hard for her to accept because she feels left out. She also comes to the conclusion that people who are good friends and who are in love have a special language. Josie realizes that these are people we can "connect with on that deep level of language that doesn't just allow us to be ourselves with each other but allows us to be understood, even when we're not saying anything." 
Silence -- awkward or comfortable -- is a language too. Awkward silence screams, 'We have nothing in common.' Comfortable silence proves just how much we do." 

McCahan has created a lovely cast of characters in this novel; real, engaging and each very different. Josie is a clever girl who is feels deeply insecure about losing her sister to a man she barely knows, and who is beginning to ask some questions about love. She wants to break up Kate and Geoff because she feels that he's wrong for her, but more importantly that he will change her relationship with Kate and change the Sheridan family dynamics. Josie is afraid that Kate is replacing her with Geoff, but later on Kate assures her that she is not but that Geoff is much like Josie, which is why she loves him so much.

The character I disliked the most in this novel was Kate. Wedding planning turned her in the mother of all bridezillas, manipulative and mean. What was particularly nasty was Kate's criticism of her younger sister's body and looks. Kate determined that in order for her to have the perfect wedding, Josie needed to get contacts, get her ears pierced and possibly get her hair cut. Kate's lack of consideration towards her sister whom she supposedly is very close to is appalling and deeply hurts Josie.
"Done," Kate says, "I mean, her glasses are cute for every day."
"Oh, sure, but not a wedding."
"Well, not my wedding. They'll look ridiculous," Kate says. "I'm working on getting her ears pierced now. And the padded bra" -- she points at my reflected bust -- "was the best I could do for her figure."
"Are you aware that I am three feet away from you and not deaf?" I ask them both as I twist around, furious, and interrupt my seamstress's work.
"Josie, we're just talking," Kate says.
"About all of my ridiculous flaws. I know. I heard."
"No," Kate corrects me a bit more harshly than I think I deserved. "About my wedding and how my bridesmaids, including my sister, are going to look so that no one looks ridiculous."

When Josie tries to tell her sister that she is not critical of her other bridesmaids, Kate adds further insult by saying she doesn't have to be. Sadly Kate and Josie's mother does very little to rein Kate in, allowing the situation between the two sisters to grow increasingly hostile and setting the stage for an all out battle later on. Brides get to determine the dress and shoes their bridesmaids will wear and how their hair will be done, and the bouquets they will carry. They do not have the right to insist that bridesmaids get contacts, breast implants, nose rings or whatever else to make their wedding "perfect". Happily Kate's words come back to haunt her as it is Josie who defines "ridiculous" at Kate's wedding. Overall, this was an interesting if brief exploration of wedding culture and the insanity it brings into families.

The one thing I thought was odd about this story was that Kate who lived only fifteen minutes from her parents home, never brought Geoff to meet them until she was engaged. I could understand this if Kate lived halfway across the country but she that wasn't the situation.  And even then, most couples would travel home bringing their partner to meet their family. This seemed strange, especially given that Kate's family was a close one. I also feel that Kate could have prevented much of the alienation Josie felt if she had brought Geoff to meet her family sooner. Josie would have gradually come to know Geoff, eventually realizing that he was a pretty decent fellow. As it is, she does eventually come to this conclusion but only after much heart break. Josie realizes that Geoff understands her more than she originally thought - that's why he was able to counter some of what Josie did to Kate.

The ending was wonderfully done because after what Kate put Josie through for her wedding, the reader can't help but hope that Josie manages to outwit both Kate and Geoff and make Kate's remark about how no one was going to look ridiculous come back to bite her! Touche!

Well written, humorous and at times deeply touching, Love and Other Foreign Words is a great read about sisterhood, love and boys!

Book Details:
Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan
New York: Dial Books         2014
pp. 331

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