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Sex as a Second Language

A Novel

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From Alisa Kwitney, the acclaimed author of On the Couch and The Dominant Blonde, comes a wickedly funny new novel about adult education. A teacher of English as a second language, Katherine Miner is an expert in idiomatic phrases, subtle verbal cues, and unwritten cultural rules, but when it comes to the opposite sex, she's baffled.

Her girlfriends and her mother keep telling her that a woman who is about to turn forty needs to approach dating as a job, but Kat's decided to opt for early retirement. It's not that she hates men; she just doesn't trust them. After all, her soon-to-be ex-husband, Logan, has dropped all contact with their son, just as her own father did to her thirty years before.

While Kat prepares her students for the messy business of getting personal, she has no intention of getting herself tangled up in bedsheets and emotions. But Magnus Grimmson, the tall, good-looking, tongue-tied Icelander in the front row, doesn't appear to pose any threat. In fact, the man seems to need more help deciphering women than Kat does decoding men.

Then Kat receives a letter from her father that turns her life upside down. A former spy, Kat's father writes that he wants to get to know her. But her father's reappearance causes unexpected complications, and suddenly Kat finds herself questioning whom she can trust and discovering that she still has a lot to learn about men, friendship, and the kind of nonverbal communication they don't teach in school.

Darkly humorous, emotionally honest, and unabashedly sexy, Alisa Kwitney's novel affirms that forty isn't the end of the road -- sometimes, it's a new beginning.

Reading Group Guide
Sex as a Second Language
By Alisa Kwitney

Questions for Discussion
1. A major theme in this novel is the "second language" of subtext -- saying one thing but meaning another, implications, social cues, and how people misread and misuse these elements of language. Identify and discuss instances in the novel that exemplify the difficulty and dangers of navigating subtext.
2. What are your impressions of Kat, Zandra, and Marcy when you first meet them? How does your opinion change by the end of the novel?
3. Kat makes her living in an industry built on facades and deliberate projecting. How has her career influenced the way she sees herself? How has it prepared her for life post-acting?
4. Kat struggles with two absent fathers -- her own, with whom she hasn't ever had a real relationship, and her husband, who not only walks out on her, but who abandons and doesn't call, write, or see his nine-year-old son. Compare and contrast Ken Miner and Logan Dain and their relationships to their families.
5. Lia and Kat are both abandoned by their husbands and left to raise a child on their own. How are their situations similar? What makes them, and their responses to their circumstances, different?
6. Magnus notes that he knows a power struggle when he sees one -- and he sees one going on between Kat and her mother, Lia. What are the conflicts between the two over the course of the novel? How does Kat demand respect from her mother? In what ways does Lia rise (or not) to the occasion?
7. How much does profession define the characters in this book? Do you think it's easier or harder for the women in this novel to redefine themselves as they change professions, or for the men?
8. Kat says she doesn't trust men, but she is let down by more than one woman in this novel. In Sex as a Second Language, do you feel that one gender is more untrustworthy than the other? Give examples to support your opinion.
9. How are Dashiell and Kat alike? How are Zandra and her son, Nico, alike? Using the novel as your resource, discuss how parents can indirectly, and sometimes unintentionally, influence the personality of their children.
10. Magnus is in a difficult situation. Do you think Kat would have been less upset with Magnus if he'd told her the truth before they had sex? Are you sympathetic to his predicament? Why or why not?
11. Were you surprised to learn that Zandra and Logan had been having an affair? When did you first suspect that Logan was the "semi-famous, semi-married" man?
12. The rock climbing wall is used as a metaphor both early and late in the novel. What does the wall itself, and Kat's ability (or inability) to climb it symbolize?
13. This novel is populated with salesmen, actors, and spies. What kinds of themes is the author incorporating by using these types of characters? Why do you think she specifically chose acting and espionage as the "worlds" of the main characters?

Enhance Your Book Club Experience
This novel is framed by specific portions of a book called Speaking Naturally: Communication Skills in American English. For fun, pick up a copy yourself, or purchase an audiobook version and share it with your reading group. In learning how foreign students are taught to understand American culture, you may gain a new perspective on the mutability of spoken and body language.
Sex as a Second Language is considered break-out women's fiction, a story that utilizes many of the techniques and familiar characteristics of romance and chick-lit, but goes beyond the confines of those genres. For your next book club gathering, compile a list of elements that you think are common to romance and chick-lit novels. Discuss how Sex as a Second Language uses or defies those elements.
On page 94, Kat reminisces about learning to make and use "invisible ink" with her father. Make your own using any one of the recipes found at www.kidzworld.com/site/p3844.htm. You can also have fun learning about and writing messages using secret codes and ciphers, like the null cipher Ken Miner uses to leave notes for Kat (where only the first letter of each word is important). Check out the codes explained at www.theproblemsite.com/codes for starters, or visit library.thinkquest.org/04oct/00451/topsecret.htm for more about what it takes to be a spy!
Photo Credit:

Alisa Kwitney is the author of On the Couch, Does She or Doesn't She?, The Dominant Blonde, Till the Fat Lady Sings, and the forthcoming Flirting in Cars. Her books have been translated into Russian, German, and Japanese. A former comic book editor with DC Comics/Vertigo, Kwitney holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University. She lives with her family in the Hudson River Valley and New York City. Visit her website at www.alisakwitney.com.

"A witty, engaging read." -- Chicago Sun-Times

"Smart, sassy...funny, and emotionally true, a great read!" -- Jennifer Crusie, bestselling author of Bet Me

"An engaging and intelligently written comedy." -- Publishers Weekly

"A sassy, sexy story that proves that being middle-aged is not necessarily the end of the world." -- Tucson Citizen

"Smart, funny, and very real. Alisa Kwitney gets to the heart of relationships and portrays them with wit and honesty." -- Leslie Schnur, author of The Dog Walker

More books from this author: Alisa Kwitney