Woman as a Foreign Language by Katherine Wyvern: 0/10 Stars



What do you do when the woman you want to be … is a man?

Nina’s abusive childhood left her feeling so vulnerable when wearing anything flimsier than combat boots that she has spent her whole adult life dressed like a gang boy. But when she meets the tall, glamourous, charismatic Julia (actually her cross-dressing neighbor, Julian, going out en femme), Nina is seized by an overwhelming and terrifying urge to finally express her own femininity.

Julia/n has not only a slightly split personality but also a thoroughly broken heart. What s/he wants most is a partner who will love both Julia and Julian. While Nina learns from Julia how to be a woman, Julian discovers that they might well be made for each other, but it will take a struggle against prejudice and a whole conservative mind-set before they can follow their hearts, and express their true, unique, and beautiful selves.

Be Warned: LGBTQ, Gender-Queer


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Overall Rating: 0/10 stars

Matt’s Review: 0/5 Stars

Good God, this book was awful.

Sweeping aside the pretentious writing, the constant jumping around between tenses, the utter confusion I felt for the first 25% of the book, the fact I have no idea even what country it’s taking place in apart from a non-Italian one with mostly white folks in it, the speed of the alternate POVs being so rapid it felt like head-hopping, insanely bad dialogue, the disconnect between Nina’s first person view and Julia’s third, and the strange narrative voice that wanted to be prose and poetry at the same time and wasn’t any good at either—sweeping aside all of that…

This book was still awful.

Julia—I will stick with Julia and she for this review, as no neutral or neo-pronoun was used in the book, and I absolutely refuse to do the insulting thing the book did to cover its bases, and Julia and female pronouns were used the majority of the time—was horribly portrayed. As far as I can tell, Julia is supposed to be genderfluid. Sometimes she is Julia, sometimes he is Julian. She split up with her ex, Linda, after Linda caught her in a dress. And immediately, we run into the first problem.

Julia takes this all as her fault. She should have ‘warned’ Linda. She should have been more careful. It was her fault. Later, when she comes out to Nina, she does exactly the same thing. She apologises for coming out in the manner that she chose. No! No! This is not negotiable! However a trans person wants to come out, you respect that! Nobody needs to be warned that someone is transgender! This has happened to me in real life and it is one of the most hurtful, disgusting experiences I’ve had! My gender identity does not warrant a goddamn warning! The blurb actually gives a warning for LGBTQ content, you guys!

This should have been negated. Hard. Repeatedly. And it wasn’t. And you know what, even if it was, can we please start getting some trans characters who don’t feel the need to apologise every ten seconds for who they are? Because—surprise—they don’t. We don’t.

But hey at least this part was refreshing: Julia is a pretty shitty person too. She takes one look at Nina and immediately ‘girlfriend projects’ her. This is when you start a relationship with someone with the aim of changing them. In this case, making Nina more feminine. Grow her hair out. Use make-up. Dress better. None of it is fuelled by Nina asking for it or saying she’d like to try it, all of it comes—without prompt—from Julia deciding she’d be better pretty. To the extreme of saying a man’s job isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, why hasn’t she pushed herself to do something better than welding, and she’d look much better with a bit of make-up and a blouse instead of her working overalls. Julia is a sexist, classist, intellectual snob, never changes, and thoroughly gets her own way about it. She’s also more than a little racist, given the repeated references to Nina looking like a gypsy and being exotic.

Don’t get me wrong, though, Nina isn’t exactly a lovely person. How does she respond to Julia coming out? “We’re Italian, the only man in a dress we’ve ever seen is the Pope.” She’s not joking to lighten the mood, guys. That is her genuine thought process. She gets mad that her idol for womanhood is a man—yes, also the way the book puts it. I thought the book’s tag might be a terrible copy editor somewhere, but it is definitely coming from within the pages.

And once she’s gotten used to Julia’s identity? “Julia/n.” And, “S/he.” Yes. That is how Julia is referred to. There is no conversation. There is no discussion. Nina just starts doing that. How I finished this book is beyond me. It’s a fuzzy memory of anger.

At the end, she even outs Julia to her mother. Nina comes from a plainly extremely violent abusive home, but just walks out without a problem after her mother throws her things away. After years of staying without a single lock to force her to—except, of course, the locks in her head from a plainly extremely violent abusive home—she outs Julia, then ups and walks out. Not only do I not believe for a minute she was at a point where she was capable of doing it, but outing Julia in the process—to Julia’s neighbours, so people very, very capable of causing harm with that knowledge!—was disgusting.

Basically this book is a mess of sexism, transphobia and ignorance. It goes without saying that I would not recommend this to anyone, of any gender.

Laura’s Review: 0/5 Stars

This book was… bad. I’m sorry but I don’t think there’s another word for it. First, the writing in an on itself was a miss for me. It looked sometimes as if the author hadn’t decided whether she was writing poetry or prose, and the combination really wasn’t enjoyable. We also get two different POVs, and one of them is written in first person present tense while the other one is written in this person past tense. And it really doesn’t work.

But then we get everything else: sexism, classism, gender and cultural stereotypes, the works. We get Julia asking Nina over to do something girly together. That something girly includes: dress up, have a drink somewhere, go see a movie or talk about things. Because you need to be a girl to do any of these, right?

Then we get a few instances of both characters saying Nina is proud of doing a man’s job (she’s a welder) and of being as good at it as any man. Can we do away with the idea that there are jobs for men and jobs for women once and for all? Oh, and about the job, we get Julia thinking that manual labor is not a great career achievement – of course, comparing it to her two university degrees and work in academia – and then wondering how come no one had told Nina to make something better with herself.

We also see Julia thinking, more than a few times, how pretty Nina would be dressed up and wearing make-up. Because of course girls are only pretty if they’re wearing dresses and eye shadow – cue to me rolling my eyes in the background.

How am I supposed to buy a romance between these two when one of them wants to change the other one – career, appearance – even before they’ve properly met? I’m sorry, but no, I really don’t buy it.

Oh, and I did say cultural stereotypes, didn’t I? It turns out Nina’s family is Italian and of course like all Italian families (and this is said in the text) they are loud and overbearing, and “designed like a trap.”

But then we go even farther and slide right into racism, with Julian describing Nina’s features as exotic and gipsy-ish – and more than once. Now, I’m not Romani myself, but what I know from talking and listening to Roma people is that that word is a racial slur, and shouldn’t have been used here; or anywhere, really.

As for Julian, who is the reason I’ve read this book in the first place, I don’t really know what to say. I couldn’t figure her out. She doesn’t use any labels in the book. At first, I thought she was trans, but then she talked about Julia and Julian as if they were two different people, and that confused me one hell of a lot. The closer I can come to defining her identity is genderfluid, but I’m uncomfortable putting a label on her because I don’t know which one she would assign to herself – if she would at all. I’m guessing Matt will discuss this more in his review, because I’m honestly out of words. I’ll say, though, that the way Nina talked about Julia as if she were half male, half female, didn’t sit well with me at all. And the way Nina outs Julia to her family when they accuse her of being a lesbian made me see red. I don’t know much, but I do know it’s never your place to out another person; my god, especially not to your bigoted family.

And finally, if this was supposed to be a romance, I just didn’t buy it. They exchange “I love you-s” after three dates, and it felt completely flat to me. And please, for the love of whatever it is you believe in: condoms are a thing! Oh! And someone that has never given a blowjob in her life swallows a cock in one go, and then swallows and doesn’t gag – not even a little? Yeah, I call bullshit. Those are probably small details after everything that happened before, but they were just another reason that made this book so bad for me.

So yeah, I wouldn’t recommend it, at all.

5 thoughts on “Woman as a Foreign Language by Katherine Wyvern: 0/10 Stars

  1. Zero stars twice? Ouch. I picked this up for a read a while ago, but haven’t gotten around to it. It had good reviews, but you’ve brought up some valid concerns. Now I’m doubly curious.


  2. I thought this book was absolutely brilliant. Beautifully written, subtle, interesting, moving, intelligent, kind, and very representative of how different cultures deal with these things differently. I support the moral parsing of creative works, but to use the kind of awarenss that exists in the States and try to pull that off in an Italian cultural context would be completely unbelievable. The characters don’t do what moral adults would or should, they are flawed and interesting … because it’s fiction. Reviewers are missing the point imho.


  3. One of the pub reps for the store I work at was putting LGBTQ content warnings in her mark-up notes, right next to stuff like murder, extreme violence, and drug use, and I was just. No. Don’t do that. No. So I complained. This book sounds completely awful. I’m sorry y’all had to suffer through it, but also grateful that I can know to stay the hell away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Honestly, don’t stay away, it’s a wonderfully gentle and complex read – decide for yourself. It’s one of my top books.


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