This book reminded me just how much I love Alisa Kwitney's writing. For me, her books are all about the characters, whose quirks and vulnerabilities she reveals with unusual candor. She's fearless when it comes to putting her protagonists in embarrassing situations and willing to risk having them appear foolish. And yet, Kwitney's characters never strike me as stupid, just as intelligent, insightful people whose insecurities sometimes get the better of them.
Kwitney's sly, dark humor almost always springs from human foibles and genuine fears, and so the laughs come from a place of sympathy. I never feel that she's laughing *at* her characters, or that she considers herself in any way better than they are. We are all, her books seem to say, vulnerable enough to be funny, but perceptive enough and warm enough to laugh at our own flaws.
There is something so very human and so real about the characters in Sex as a Second Language that reading it made me feel not only engaged and entertained, but also touched by the world's messy imperfections, if that makes any sense. For me this may be the best of Kwitney's chick lit novels. It's no coincidence, I think, that this is the first them not to end on a zany or farcical note. Although the humor is still very prominent, Kwitney stays with her main characters longer here, and goes deeper, I think. It feels like a more substantial book.
It is very much about the complexity of communication, the difficulty of navigating not just verbal but also nonverbal
language, about how people's unspoken signals aren't always clear to us, and our own fears get in the way, so that we don't always know what to say or do in relationship to others.
Almost everything in the book comes back to this -- Kat's job as a an ESL teacher, helping her foreign students to chart their way through Americans' values and mannerisms, her former life as an actress, in which she often felt less self-conscious (and therefore more confident) when taking on a role, Magnus's job, which requires him to get close to Kat and try to decipher her, Kat's father's letters that are written in code, the challenges Kat's son faces in the minefield of his interactions with other kids, and Magnus and Kat's relationship burnout and their past difficulties with that most intimate form of nonverbal communication -- sex.
Many romance and chick lit books are ultimately about the obstacles that stand the way of our connecting with other human beings, but few look at them with such honesty and insight. Great literature it may not be, but Sex as a Second Language is IMO a terrific book.