Sixteen-year-old Ana has just moved to New Jersey from Argentina for her Junior year of high school. She’s a poet and a lover of language—except that now, she can barely understand what’s going on around her, let alone find the words to express how she feels in the language she’s expected to speak.
All Ana wants to do is go home—until she meets Harrison, the very cute, very American boy in her math class. And then there’s her new friend Neo, the Greek boy she’s partnered up with in ESL class, who she bonds with over the 80s teen movies they are assigned to watch for class (but later keep watching together for fun), and Altagracia, her artistic and Instagram-fabulous friend, who thankfully is fluent in Spanish and able to help her settle into American high school.
But is it possible that she’s becoming too American—as her father accuses—and what does it mean when her feelings for Harrison and Neo start to change? Ana will spend her year learning that the rules of English may be confounding, but there are no rules when it comes to love.
With playful and poetic breakouts exploring the idiosyncrasies of the English language, Love in English tells a story that is simultaneously charming and romantic, while articulating a deeper story about what it means to become “American.”
While I am not Latinx or have the direct experience of immigrating to a new country, Love in English tells a wonderful tale about connecting with one another in ways that transcends the language that we speak and the beauty behind the words that we do use.
Ana has just recently moved to America with her mother, joining her father who had gone and settled there a few years before them. Leaving behind everything and everyone that she knew in Argentina, nothing could prepare her for the jolt that is living in a different culture, even all her English lessons back home.
Having been learning Spanish myself this last year while in lockdown, I can only imagine and empathize if our situations were reversed and I had to move to Argentina with my limited Spanish knowledge. There will always be a culture shock, but I wonder if it has to go hand-in-hand with the mockery and racism for being different. Ana’s story doesn’t tackle racism so much on the forefront, but it is there sometimes in the implicit comments students make, even the idea that her father puts in her head that she needs to become more American in order to fit in. I liked that it’s touched upon, even if only briefly, because it is important to acknowledge the struggles immigrants face. My parents went through the same experiences – I won’t go in-depth about that right now – so I appreciate its authenticity from Maria without the want to sugarcoat things because it speaks of real, hard experience.
This well-paced story mainly follows Ana’s growth in her school year as she finds new friends, picks up more vocabulary in English and wrestles with herself on how to maintain her Argentinian heritage in a place that wants to encourage only Americanism. I was right there with Ana realizing how difficult learning a new language and culture is – particularly English. Have we ever noticed just how many exceptions there are to the English rules? Or homonyms and varying pronunciations for the same letters? It makes me glad English is my first language in some ways.
I loved that Maria included sentences in dialogues with Ana that had a lot of “#” in them. For example, “‘My grandparents are immigrants, and ### ########. I hope we weren’t #### #######.’”. It really gives us the full experience from Ana’s POV trying to catch words and phrases that come out way too quickly in conversations. We are left guessing and filling in the blanks with the words that were understandable to converse with others. And as the year progresses, we see there were less “#” in conversations as she slowly picks up more vocabulary, emphasizing her growth in little tangible ways.
There is a heavy emphasis on words here, both spoken and written. Yes, because Ana is learning and immersing herself in a new language, but also because she is a poet. Words are her way of capturing feelings, imparting memories, breathing life into moments. My particular favourite was the beauty of words that have meanings that cannot be expressed in another language. How wonderful it is to imagine, as bloggers who I hope love words in general, the words that cannot be described exactly in English? Somehow, to use phrases and other long descriptors to try and capture its essence dampens the beauty inherent in just one word.
Anyway, I digress. Words clearly make me happy, as did it to Ana. Littered throughout the numerous short chapters (and I do mean short), the book has many poems Ana wrote depicting her thoughts and feelings of that time. I liked this aspect because it makes the overall novel feel like it’s a journal or personal diary. Whether it was written as Ana went through these events or at some later time (because it is written in English, obviously), that is up to our own interpretation as the reader.
Now, the other main theme here besides Ana’s identity struggle for the American version of herself is her budding friendships and romances. I normally don’t like love triangles but I rather enjoyed this one. There’s the sweet, all-American typical jock kind of boy in her math class, Harrison. And on the other side, there’s this Greek-Cyprus boy in her ESL class, Neo, who understands exactly what it feels to be displaced into a foreign culture and not be understood easily by fellow peers. It follows the same question Ana struggled with throughout the book: to be more like the girl she should be, or the girl she sees in herself? I liked the romance overall. It was cute and not rushed – none of that insta-love going on here – though I would’ve wanted a little more in the end to feel fully satisfied when she finally made her choice.
While everything above makes it sound a little heavy, Love in English does keep it light and fun, an amazing balance Maria has put into it. My favourite part was Ana’s ESL class with Mr. T. If only I knew an ESL teacher that enthused about helping kids learn a new culture and language. From driving them for McDonald’s takeout experience to setting up mini scenes to practice everyday kind of language, this class was everything! And who said watching movies (in a different language) can’t be great homework for learning vocabulary AND culture?
I have a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings finishing this one. Short and well-paced, I blew through it in practically a day. I don’t think I can summarize the moral and beauty of this book better than this quote from the author herself, so I shall end off this review with it.
We find many ways to say the things we feel. But what’s important is not what separates us, or the particulars of how you say a thing or how I do. What’s important is that in our similarly beating hearts, love sounds like love without any words.
Love in English is like a love letter written to the beauty of language. Following newly-immigrated Ana from Argentina, adapting to American culture and fast-paced English was an eye-opening experience, especially for someone like me who has never moved to another country before. A talented poet, Ana embarks to learn her vocabulary and fit into this new place called home. Along the way, she finds potential love with two boys and figures out what it really means to be American, one that is a mosaic of cultures and languages and not at all like what movies will have you think only. I couldn’t recommend this lyrical and unique book more to you.