{FOF Book Guru Review} Lost and Forgotten Languages

Ruiyan Xu’s first novel, Lost and Forgotten Languages (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), is the story of Li Jing, an investment banker from Shanghai who, after a massive accident, loses the ability to speak Chinese. His wife, Meiling, is devastated that she can no longer communicate with her husband, and the two become more and more distant as the book progresses. Rosalyn Neal, an American doctor, offers Li Jing’s only hope for recovery and Li Jing ultimately falls in love with her. According to Publishers Weekly, “The characters are portrayed with empathy and care, but the suspense over Jing’s fate is lost in too many narrative digressions and an ending that falls flat.” Does FOF book reviewer Karen Smith agree?

In a nutshell, what is this book about?
This story is about language, how words bind intimate relationships and also how we see and present ourselves. Author Ruiyan Xu got the idea for her book during her childhood. Her family emigrated to the U.S. from Shanghai and she felt isolated because she didn’t speak English. Like most children, she learned it quickly and she lost her native tongue. When she returned to China in her teens, not knowing how to speak Chinese made her feel isolated once again.

Did you enjoy it?

I found it enjoyable, yet deeply troubling.

Was it a page turner, or did you have to push through it?
Not a compelling page-turner in terms of pace or plot, but steadily interesting.

What would you want to ask the author, now that you’re done reading?
I would like to ask Ruiyan Xu about her own experiences with languages lost and found: did she find herself with different personalities in English and Chinese? Is it possible to use language independent of culture?

Would you recommend this to other FOFs? Did you find yourself telling friends about the book as you were reading it?
I’d recommend it to anyone interested in a book that asks more questions than it answers.

What part did you like most? What part did you like least?
My favorite part of the book was the trip that James, Rosalyn and PangPang made to Hangzhou. That interlude shows the characters what is possible in the alternate universe of the English language, both good and bad. I found the ending unsatisfying.

Is this book similar to any other books you have read? Which?
While I haven’t read anything directly comparable to this work, the disintegration of a marriage and family because of new language barriers takes the reader into the familiar territory of love and loss, flirtation and affairs, betrayals and misunderstandings.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share . . . ?
There is a shallowness to Xu’s characters that makes it difficult to be more than a spectator to their situation. A better writer would have given the characters more depth so we could identify with them. Instead, Xu keeps us focused on the language problem itself. What would happen if you were ‘robbed’ of your native tongue in a traumatic accident? How would you talk with your spouse? What about your job? Your children?

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