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The Other Language

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A teenage girl encounters the shocks of first love at the height of the summer holidays in Greece. A young filmmaker celebrates her first moment of recognition by impulsively buying a Chanel dress she can barely afford. Both halves of a longstanding couple fall in love with others and shed their marriage in the space of a morning. In all of these sparkling stories, characters take risks, confront fears, and step outside their boundaries into new destinies.

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The Other Language

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A teenage girl encounters the shocks of first love at the height of the summer holidays in Greece. A young filmmaker celebrates her first moment of recognition by impulsively buying a Chanel dress she can barely afford. Both halves of a longstanding couple fall in love with others and shed their marriage in the space of a morning. In all of these sparkling stories, characters take risks, confront fears, and step outside their boundaries into new destinies.
       Tracing the contours of the modern Italian diaspora, Francesca Marciano takes us from Venetian film festivals to the islands off Tanzania to a classical dance community in southern India. These stories shine with keen insights and surprising twists. Driven by Marciano’s vivid takes on love and betrayal, politics and travel, and the awakenings of childhood, The Other Language is a tour de force that illuminates both the joys and ironies of self-reinvention. 

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
Francesca Marciano's magical, fleet-footed stories leap around the globe, from Rome to New York to Mombasa, from a small Greek village to a remote island off the coast of Tanzania to a fortress on the banks of the Narmada River in India. She has an uncanny ability to conjure specific places—not just the spectacular postcard vistas…but also a sense of the daily rhythms of life there…What makes these tales stand out as captivating exemplars of storytelling craft is Ms. Marciano's sympathetic, but wryly unsentimental knowledge of these people's inner lives; her ability—not unlike Alice Munro's—to capture the entire arc of a character's life in handful of pages; and her precise yet fluent prose…that immerses us, ineluctably, in the predicaments of her men and women.
The New York Times Book Review - Erica Wagner
…Marciano left Rome for New York as a young woman. Since then, she has traveled widely, spending a decade in Kenya. Her three novels…describe Afghanistan, Italy, Africa—and the negotiations men and women make not only between themselves but between cultures. In both cases, reality and imagination have a tendency to bump up hard against each other. The nine stories in The Other Language reiterate and refresh this preoccupation…Marciano's stories are never less than engaging. She is a screenwriter as well as a novelist, and knows how to hold a reader's attention, how to set a scene. Her dialogue, unsurprisingly, is always fluid…The best stories in this collection have the confidence of subtlety, and a touch of the unexpected.
Publishers Weekly
Generations of Italians fled the poverty of their native country, never to return. But in this century, Italians leaving Italy are highly mobile citizens of the globalized world who, nonetheless, remain recognizably Italian. It’s these Italians who populate Marciano’s (Rules of the Wind) stories. In “Big Island, Small Island,” Stella flies to a tiny African island to see an old boyfriend, who turns out to have gone native; in “An Indian Soiree,” a vacationing couple realizes how easily a marriage can dissolve; in “The Italian System,” a Italian woman who loves New York City because it has “no witnesses, no memories” ends up writing a book about Italian ways; and in the title story, a teenager’s crush on an English boy changes her life. Even when the heroine stays in Italy, as in the excellent “The Presence of Men,” she’s still out of place, as a northerner in Italy’s deep south. The one story with no ties to Italy, “The Club,” is the weakest in an otherwise strong collection. Marciano’s women (and sometimes her men) don’t necessarily want what they have—they make choices and make do; they travel, get divorced, adapt. The effect is both luxurious and down to earth, a pleasurable sojourn with characters Marciano depicts as simultaneously likable and irritating, bold and retiring, types and individuals—not unlike those reading about them. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Marciano, a novelist and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, offers women on the brink in wide-ranging settings, from Venice during film festival season to a classical dance community in India. Since Marciano is coming from Rome, the five-city tour really says something.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-02-06
Nine closely observed stories of growing up, dislocation and family relationships. The first story in the collection gives the volume its title and presents a lovely reminiscence of childhood and adolescence, with all its fumbling awkwardness. Emma, Luca and Monica have recently lost their mother, and their father takes them to a Greek village for summer vacation and an opportunity to at least temporarily put aside their grief. There, they meet Nadia, a Greek teenager with an almost adultlike self-possession, as well as Jack and David, two adolescents from Britain. Over several summers as they all grow up, Emma becomes intrigued by David's uninhibited mother and has her first sexual experience with David. The story ends with Emma bumping into Jack years later in Rome and finding out David's tragic end. "Chanel," the following story, introduces us to Caterina, a documentary filmmaker, and her gay friend Pascal, who persuades Caterina to buy an expensive Chanel dress, in part since she's always lived a life in which self-indulgence is seen as a catalyst for guilt. Years later, she still has the dress—and still hasn't worn it—but learns a deeper lesson about its true worth. "Big Island, Small Island" takes us to sub-Saharan Africa, where Stella, a scientist with an interest in biodiversity, meets Andrea, her expat ex-lover, and discovers how far apart they've grown. In "An Indian Soirée," a couple's marriage unravels in the space of a single day. And so it goes—each of Marciano's stories is a gem, with fully realized characters wistfully and beautifully captured through dialogue that is both pensive and poignant.
From the Publisher

“This is an astonishing collection. . . . A vision of geography as it grounds us, as it shatters us, as it transforms the soul.” —Jhumpa Lahiri

“Magical, fleet-footed stories [that] leap around the globe. . . . Captivating exemplars of storytelling.” —The New York Times

“Brilliant. . . . One finishes this collection feeling altered, provoked, exhilarated.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Captivating. . . . With a nod to Paul Bowles, Marciano evokes the freedom found in not belonging.” —Vogue

“Exquisite. . . . Transporting. . . . The book transcends physical travel, celebrating the power of encountering new cultures, personalities and truths, and ultimately discovering different versions of ourselves.” —People

“Thrilling. . . . Delicious. . . . Gorgeous. . . . Marciano uses the tightness of the short story to focus sharply on the effect places [have] on their sense of self.” —The Washington Times

“Seductive. . . . Cosmopolitan. . . . In Marciano’s nuanced emotional universe, a foreigner is likely to consider herself an outsider, no matter how long she’s lived elsewhere—especially if she still dreams in her mother tongue.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“You hold in your hands 304 pages of dynamite. These stories are worldly, political, and funny to boot. I’ve loved Marciano’s writing since her first novel, Rules of the Wild—but I am completely hot for The Other Language.” —Gary Shteyngart

“The best new collection I’ve read in years. . . . I loved every single one of these affecting, suspenseful, and sublimely crafted stories.” —Julia Glass

“An absolute delight. . . . So compelling, so satisfying and ultimately so addictive that one closes the book hankering for more.” —Andrea di Robilant

“I love being in Marciano’s unpredictable worlds. . . . The writing is so moving, and conveys so much truth with a marvelously light and tender touch. One feels a haunting recognition for the minuscule losses that are such a large part of everyday life.” —Sheila Heti

“This outstanding book has a quality I find only in the best short-story collections: that, after each chapter, I cannot immediately flip to the next, but need time to absorb what has just unfolded so memorably before me. Francesca Marciano is a superb storyteller.” —Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists

“Marciano has a sharp eye for the right details and a sure grip on portraying people. It takes only a few sentences for her to pull the reader right into their worlds and feel the conflicting forces swirling around them. . . . Her subjects are the kind of events that loom large in our lives when they occur, and remain to haunt us ever after.” —The Toronto Star

“From Rome with love, this elegant and colorful collection will get you seriously thinking about giving up life in the States and going to Venice, a small Greek village, or any of the other places she uses as a setting in her stories.” —Flavorwire

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307908360
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/8/2014
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 111,351
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Francesca Marciano

Francesca Marciano is the author of the novels Rules of the Wild, Casa Rossa, and The End of Manners. She lives in Rome.

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Read an Excerpt

from The Presence of Men
The bells woke Lara up at seven. When she opened her eyes under the tall vaulted ceiling, for a split second she felt as though she were inside a church. It had been her first night in the new house in the village and she’d slept beautifully.
She was emerging from the shower in her plum-colored, Moroccan-style bathroom when she heard a vigorous knock at the front door. Still dripping wet, she ran down in her robe, crossed the courtyard and opened the old wooden door, which had been painstakingly sandpapered and waxed. A small woman of indefinite age, with an old-fashioned perm, her body shaped like a box, was staring at her.
“You are the person who bought this house?” she asked, her voice loud as a trumpet. She was a local, as Lara could tell from her accent. She nodded.
“Ha ha! At last you are here in person!” the little woman said with a cruel smile and slid herself inside the courtyard like an eel.
“For months all I’ve been seeing are your builders. Very rude people. Where do they come from?”
“Martano, I think. Why?” Lara wondered if the small woman had come to give her some kind of fine, although she wore no uniform.
“I knew it. Martano people are all thieves.”
“I’m so sorry, signora. Was there a problem?”
The woman ignored her and proceeded to take a long, critical look at the potted plants that filled the courtyard, at the indigo blue table and matching chairs that Lara had spotted in a magazine and bought online. She closely examined the pale dusty mauve of the walls, a hue that had cost days of trial and error.
“I see you have changed everything in here.”
Lara wasn’t sure where this might be leading.
“Well, I have restored the place. It was a ruin.”
The woman ignored her and peered some more. “My great-aunt lived in this house,” she said.
She brushed the smooth surface of the wall, then moved swiftly toward the glass door of what used to be the barn and glanced inside.
“She used to keep her donkey in there,” she said, pointing at the space.
“Oh yes? Well, that’s the living room now.”
“She never married, she worked very hard all her life. She was a very clever woman.”
Lara tried a friendlier expression. All this might be pretty sweet, after all. “So you knew this place from the time she lived here? How nice. Would you like to see what it looks like now?”
Lara opened the glass door, which gave into the ex-barn-now-living-room, but the woman was already snooping inside the kitchen on the opposite side of the courtyard.
“I knew this place like the back of my hand. We used to play in here all the time when we were children.”
She stepped into the kitchen and Lara followed her. There were still unopened boxes on the floor; the stainless steel surfaces of the brand-new appliances glinted in the shady room. The woman gave a yelp.
“See! I had heard from people you had done this, but I wanted to see for myself.”
“Had done what?” Lara asked.
The woman was glaring at the opposite wall.
This thing you have done in here, is a mortal sin.”
By now, had she been in Rome, Lara would have normally lost her patience and asked her to leave, but it was her first contact with any of her neighbors in the village and she sensed she’d reached a delicate intersection that required some caution.
“A mortal sin!” the little woman repeated in a thundering voice.
“Please have a seat. Can I offer you a cup of coffee?”
“Okay. Then please, what is it that I did?”
“The forno. You tore it down.”
Lara crossed her arms.
“Yes I did, the architect . . . my friend,” she said, but immediately regretted bringing an architect into the conversation. “It was as big as a room. It took up too much space, it took half the courtyard.”
But the woman was right; when, a year earlier, Lara had bought the house in the heart of the village, she’d taken Silvana, her architect friend, to see it. She was a towering woman in her forties with flaming hennaed hair who on principle never came off her high heels, especially when marching through building sites (“height gains you respect, it’s Pavlovian”). Silvana had paced inside the old building not uttering a sound, with an air of concern. Maybe it was just her way, or maybe she didn’t approve of the house. Lara had begun to worry. Silvana had taken one look at the opening of the gigantic wood oven in the kitchen and before Lara could say anything she’d climbed inside it with the speed of a crab, holding her flashlight.
“It’s gigantic. And totally useless,” her voice had boomed from the dark interior, like Jonah’s from inside the whale.
She’d reappeared, her clothes coated in blackish dust, then effortlessly slid out of the oven mouth. She had a big grin on her face.
“Good. We can gain some space. I feel a lot better now.”
So the forno went down, and what was once a dark chamber was now a third of her courtyard.
The little woman waved her index finger at Lara like a mad evangelist.
“You tore down the last oven of this village to gain a little space for your plants. That forno was a public monument. It was part of our history!”
The woman shook her head with disdain.
“Yes, I was told this room was the village bakery. But as I told you the wood oven took half the space of the courtyard. I mean, it went from here all the way to . . .” Lara made a sweeping arc with her hand across the expanse of the courtyard.
“This was not a bakery. It was a communal oven. An oven where people could bring their own loaves of bread. Bread and pies, so that my aunt could bake for them. She only charged ten, twenty liras a piece. We all came here as children with our tins, everyone did, every Saturday . . .”
“Did you? How nice. So, what did . . .” Lara loved stories like this, it was part of what had drawn her to the village in the first place. But the woman was talking right over her question.
“ . . . And in winter, when it was really cold, this was the warmest room in the whole village, so we sat in that corner, see? My aunt used to have a wooden bench right there.”
The woman gestured to the wall where now sat the dishwasher still sheathed in its cardboard box.
“My aunt would give us sweets while we waited. In the summer we’d wait outside in the garden, and we’d play with the donkey. This is how things were in this village up until only forty, fifty years ago.”
The little woman grabbed a chair and slumped on it, hands entwined on her lap. Her feet barely touched the ground. Lara was beginning to feel it had been a mistake to let this creature in. Obviously this was only the beginning of something far more serious than Lara had envisaged.
The little woman went on. “But of course, what do you care? You people come from the outside and assume everything here is up for sale and you think you have a right to take it down, rip it all up as you please. You even bring your own architect to destroy our history!”
Lara stared at the little woman, shocked. This was truly a disgrace. She’d come to this village with the best intentions, eager to learn and respect the local culture and traditions. And now—barely twenty-four hours after she’d moved in—she was already facing the enormity of her first mistake.
Senta signora, I’m sorry about the wood oven,” Lara said. “I had no idea how important it was. In fact nobody told me. I’m really sorry, I . . . I wish I had known before, is all I can say.”
It was true: the local real-estate agent—a young man with overly gelled hair and two cell phones constantly ringing—hadn’t said a word about the oven being part of the village history, had made no mention of the old lady with a donkey who baked for the community; he didn’t mention village women and children taking their tins of pies and bread into what was now her stainless steel kitchen.
“Why did you buy a house here?” the woman asked, a prosecutor for the defendant.
Lara widened her arms, resigned.
“Because I love this village and I wanted to preserve this beautiful house.” She breathed in a bit and continued, “Which by the way would’ve crumbled had I not bought it.”
The woman didn’t balk; she shook her head.
“You people don’t come here to buy property because you love it. You come because it’s cheaper.”
Such was Lara’s welcome to her new life in the house she’d bought right after her divorce.

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Interviews & Essays

A Q&A with Francesca Marciano 
What does your title refer to or signify, and why is this the title of your collection?
“The Other Language” is also the title of the first story of the collection, in which a 12-year-old Italian girl from Rome, in the wake of her mother’s sudden death, falls in love with an English boy with whom she longs to communicate. So she decides to learn his language because she loves him, but also because “one of the many ways to survive the pain buried inside her was to become an entirely different person.” She’s looking, too, for a change in herself. All these stories are in different ways stories about change: transitions—displacements— not only geographical, but emotional as well.
What is your experience with “other languages”? What, do you think, happens to you when you speak a language not your native one?
The book’s epigraph is from a Derek Walcott poem: “To change your language you must change your life.” Learning a new language is an act of transformation; it means delving into another logic, a new mental construct. We become different people when we speak another language, and that can be exciting, rejuvenating—but often frightening, a bit like walking in the dark. In some way by speaking a new language we commit an act of betrayal towards our mother tongue, our past identity. But we also sometimes can, in moving beyond our comfort zones, find a new kind of freedom, and I think a writer can find great freedom in a language that is not his or her own.
Why, as a native Italian speaker, do you write your novels in English?
I lived for many years in the States and then in Kenya, so and I have spent half of my adult life speaking English; it has never abandoned me, not even now that I’ve gone back to live in Italy. It has become my truest voice on the page; it allows me to express myself without the constraints and the inhibitions of my native language. I love how direct and concise English can be, compared with the richly convoluted, often ambiguous baroque of Italian. Plus, humor in English is somehow unbeatable.
All of the stories in this collection involve some sort of travel and going to spaces out of one’s element where one is a stranger/foreigner. Why do you write so much about travelling and feature so many travelers as protagonists?
My life has been quite nomadic, and I find it difficult to call any place “home.” Since I was a child I dreamed of going to live in faraway, exotic places, and that wanderlust, which is also maybe a kind of malaise, still affects me today. Being unmoored from the familiar brings an edge, a sense of vulnerability—which is a feeling I treasure. It’s an excellent state for a writer to be in, as he or she creates something new. And a wonderful feeling to explore.
What is your favorite place to travel? To live?
I live in Rome now, and I have a love/hate relationship with it. More love than hate, I’ll admit. I’ve lived in New York, too, when I was young, and spent quite a lot of time there. But I left my heart in Kenya and fell in love with New Mexico, where I lived for a short time in my mid-forties, and where I return as often as I can. Nature and wide-open spaces play a very important role for me. I can’t bear to have my feet walking on concrete for too long.

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Reading Group Guide

1. How does the very first, and title, story of the collection explore the chasms and common ground that can be found between different cultures through language? Consider Emma’s observation of how her brother Luca and Nadia relate—“They no longer needed a common language to get along”—and her own almost magical, unconscious assimilation of English (11). What happens to people when they are forced to speak a language not their own—do they stay the same or become someone else?

2. In “The Other Language,” the three siblings who lose their mother at a very young age assume that “death must be an impolite subject to bring up in conversation, a disgrace to be hidden, to be put behind” (7). How does this belief affect Emma’s developing relationships with her brother and sister; her father, David; and later, Jack? What are the other characters’ relationships to loss and to death?

3. Travel is the jumping-off point for many of the stories. How are characters both bound and liberated by a sense of “home”? 

4. What are some reasons people in these stories travel, alone or with others—physically as well as metaphorically? Consider Stella in “Big Island, Small Island,” Lara in “The Presence of Men,” and Mrs. D’Costa in “The Club.”

5. What do you think is behind the way that Pascal and Caterina play their game in boutiques, in “Chanel”? Is the promise of Caterina’s dress fulfilled, even indirectly, by the story’s end? Why or why not? And what does Venice as a particular location add to this story?

6.  What roles do clothes and “dressing up” play in one’s ambitions and sense of self and identity in “Chanel,” and throughout the collection? Consider what being “in fashion” means in the stories “The Presence of Men,” “An Indian Soirée,” and “Roman Romance” as well.

7. Similarly, what role does music play, especially rock and roll, in helping various characters uncover their desires and achieve idealized versions of themselves? Consider “Roman Romance” and “An Indian Soirée” as well. 

8. How does Marciano’s own background, as an Italian who writes in English, inform her narrative style? Could you sense this multicultural, and even specifically Italian, point of view in the way she observes the world, draws her characters (Italians and non-Italians alike), and uses English to describe certain ideas, places, or people? 

9. In “Big Island, Small Island,” what is it about seeing Andrea in his new environment that makes Stella so uncomfortable? Is it only the place itself and the way Africa changed him, or is it something else, perhaps having to do with Stella herself? 

10. How would Andrea and Stella’s reunion have been different without Carlo Tescari’s presence? Who really is the biggest “outsider” among the characters in this story (91)?

11. What changes the relationship between Lara and Mina in “The Presence of Men”? Are they united more by their vulnerability toward and attraction to men, or their resistance to them? 

12. What does Lara mean when she says that “delayed pain was the story of her life: it was exactly for this reason some people had called her an optimist and others a fool” (147)? Who is most responsible for this pain? And do you think Lara’s behavior around Leo and Ben makes her seem more optimistic or foolish? 

13. Many of Marciano’s protagonists are women. What does looking so closely through that lens tell us about the nature of relationships today? How does the husband’s point of view in “An Indian Soirée” add to the collection’s representation of love and desire, as well as marital and midlife dissatisfaction—what he calls “this lack of want for life” (172)? 

14. How does this story’s structure of alternating perspectives reveal the couple’s fundamental misunderstandings of each other? Do you think it was their trip to India, a place with “too many layers, multiple souls, [and] myriad messages” that caused an inevitable rupture, or might they have stayed together if they’d never left home (178)? 

15. What are the short- and long-term effects of racial and ethnic stereotypes on the characters in “The Club”? 

16.  For Mrs. D’Costa, is it more harmful or soothing to feel nostalgia for her old self and old life with her late husband, Victor? How does she turn her wounds both past and present into positive energy, despite her losses?

17. How does Marciano capture the way people from different cultures interpret foreign behaviors and customs, both seriously but also in a humorous sense? Consider the book  the narrator in “The Italian System” is writing, and her take on American as well as Italian culture. How do both sets of interpretations get upended by the story’s ending? 

18. In “Quantum Theory,” what comfort does Sonia find in being in a place, and finding love, where “one could vanish, be lost, be found and rescued by strangers” (249)? 

19. What is so painful about the way Drew breaks up with Elsa in “Roman Romance,” and about the confusion that comes from the megahit song people think is about her? Consider both the painting  Judith Slaying Holofernes and the story’s eponymous song. What do they both suggest to you about the role of art and artifice in fashioning a sense of identity?

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted June 29, 2014

    The Other Language is partly a delightful collection of short st

    The Other Language
    is partly a delightful collection of short stories, but at the same time, a feast of armchair travel. In Francesca Marciano's stories, the locales are the co-stars of the tales.  The characters are well-drawn, and Marciano's word pictures of the locations were the next best thing to being there. Her stories remained in my heart and mind, long after I finished reading the book. I hope that we can expect future works, that carry on the life stories of her characters. In fact, I believe that the title story would make a great introductory chapter to a novel. This collection whetted my appetite for more of Ms. Marciano's writing.

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    Posted June 28, 2014

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