Loving an Alien by Angela Nicoară is a unique and timely exploration of what otherness means in an increasingly globalised world – and how love can take root and flourish in the rough terrain of an intercultural relationship.
Always returning to its central theme of the tension between love and alienation, and how simply being with a foreigner tends to change people profoundly, the book surveys a diverse range of nationalities, cultures, and personalities. It also finds time to dip its toe into the fields of history and anthropology, and even indulge in a whistle-stop tour of world cuisine. As one might expect, the result’s a vibrant, motley tapestry that offers something for everyone: at once light-hearted and incisive.
Based on a series of interviews between the author and twenty-six women romantically entangled with foreign men, the book’s also presented in its original conversational format, which helps bring the personalities to life and make them more accessible to the reader, like a chat over coffee rather than a relationship-counsellor’s interrogation. But that doesn’t prevent the questions yielding revealing, unexpected, and sometimes amusing answers. For example, when Nicoară asks Spaniard Pamela how her family reacted to her marriage to Swiss-Grecian Kevin, her slightly jaw-dropping answer is a deadpan: “My mother cried for two months.”
The book’s sentimental, without a doubt, but also refreshingly honest. In love with an alien herself, Nicoară knows how to prompt and probe the intricacies, problems, and frustrations inevitable to all intercultural relationships. Uplifting at times, it’s also uncomfortable at others, especially for those who have fought – and perhaps lost – the kind of battles of the heart that come to the fore throughout. In one illuminating passage, an American called Jennifer explains how her relationship with a Russian husband was thrown on its head after he became the alien, rather than her: “In Russia he was one of these streetwise guys (but) when we moved over here he was completely dependent on me…and it changed the dynamic of the entire relationship. It was almost as if I’d been on Mars, had this love affair with a Martian and now I come to my home country and I’ve got a Martian to take care of.”
The diverse range of geographic and cultural landscapes is also to Nicoară’s great credit: she successfully illustrates that love is something that flows in all directions from the North, South, East, and West, with scant regard for the arbitrary limits we impose on ourselves. From the Congo to Indonesia, Cuba to Japan, Russia to Brazil, nearly every corner of the globe is represented, demonstrating the idiosyncrasies and the universality of love in one fell swoop.
However, the decision to tell Loving an Alien’s stories only from the woman’s side is a debatable one. Though the author’s reasoning isn’t immediately obvious, the book fortunately doesn’t suffer much, thanks to the enormous diversity on display in other respects. Yet there’s no denying this is a heavily gendered – not to say hetero-centric – broaching of the subject. It’s an intriguing thought how the male version of the relationships recounted here might differ, or how the issue of homosexuality might amplify the cross-cultural questions.
The story of Diane and Ștefan from Burundi and Romania is one such episode crying out for the man’s point of view. Meeting him as she did by chance in a Bujumbura market place, Diane made Ștefan wait two weeks before calling him to arrange another meeting: “I was not in a hurry,” she coolly explains. While tantalising the reader with the raw emotion and tense excitement of germinating love, it also leaves us frustrated by a story half-told. What was running through Ștefan’s mind as he waited for that call? Was he hopelessly infatuated? Did he worry himself sick day after day that she might never phone? Or had he forgotten all about her? Was it really “love at first sight” as Diane claims, or was Ștefan simply trying his luck? We’d love to know, but unfortunately we’ll never find out.
That said, to dwell on the shortcomings of Loving an Alien is probably unfair, given the scope and depth it does go into. With a number of themes lurking just beneath the surface, this is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read that can be dipped in and out of at will. Those in international relationships will be able, of course, to form a special bond with this book – but it’s an unapologetic celebration of love in all its complicated glory that will appeal on some level to any reader: even those who’ve not yet taken the plunge themselves into that tempestuous sea.
Angela Nicoară’s Loving an Alien (2016) is available from Amazon Kindle, priced at £0.99. It is available on Monday 4 July, for one day, as a free download.