By Fernanda Eberstadt
Publisher and reviewers alike have insisted that Fernanda Eberstadt’s “Rat” must be described as a Cinderella story, a modern fable, a fairy tale, but that doesn’t quite do the novel justice. While Ms. Eberstadt’s plot is optimistic about the love between parents and children and the possibility of love’s triumph over the darker and more sordid aspects of family life, it’s decidedly not written in the roseate hue of happily-ever-after (though its ending is happy enough).
No, what Ms. Eberstadt offers is a nuanced chiaroscuro portrait of a child in the process of becoming an adult, of a child growing out of her worshipful, unquestioning love of her mother and her fanciful notions of her absent father. This is what some call a bildungsroman, though the novel is also part picaresque - as well as a lush, loving regional portrait of the wild and beautiful Pyrenees Orientales of southern France.
“Rat” is the story of Celia Bonnet (aka Rat), the quasi-feral child of a poor single mother in the Pyrenees Orientales. Vanessa, Rat’s mother, is a brocanteuse: She scrabbles together a living selling old things at the markets up and down the Mediterranean coast. Rat’s young mother is more sister than parent, an affectionate, lively free spirit, and the adored center of her daughter’s life.
As the novel opens, Rat is on the verge of adolescence - just beginning to separate her identity from her mother’s and to question her mother’s character. The blissful, twinlike existence she had shared with Vanessa fades as Rat becomes increasingly aware of her mother’s selfishness and self-pity, her capacity for negligence and hostility. To some extent, Rat’s increasing awareness of her mother’s faults is just the normal self-consciousness of the inevitably hypersensitive adolescent.
But when Vanessa’s hard-drinking boyfriend moves in, Rat’s new hypercritical awareness serves her well. There’s something predatory and not quite right about Thierry, Rat’s would-be stepfather, something that her mother refuses to see. Alienated from her mother and afraid of Thierry, Rat decides that she’s going to find her father in England, a man with whom her mother had a one-night stand. So begins the picaresque segment of Ms. Eberstadt’s tale. Rat, accompanied by her adoptive brother Morgan, makes her way from the South of France to England - camping and hitchhiking, living briefly in a commune, smuggling herself and her brother across the channel.
Ms. Eberstadt is interested in class and the clashing of different social worlds from the beginning of the novel. Rat and her friends - barefoot, suntanned, running wild through their coastal town, stare warily at the children of summer tourists, who wear sandals, sun lotion and hats, and whose parents hover close by. These parents buy old “straw hats to hang on their wall, enameled coffee pots” from Rat’s mother at flea markets - anything “picturesque” and “French” they clamor to buy, even as they shoo Rat and her French friends away from their precious, coddled children, who cannot run or climb - a seeming disability to Rat. “Later on,” Ms. Eberstadt writes of Rat, “when she meets people who’ve been born rich, they will seem to her like dogs without a sense of smell.”
This knack for the brief, deft description is one of the delights of Ms. Eberstadt’s prose. Another is the way that she manages to remind you that most of the book’s conversations and speaking would actually be in French rather than English. Ms. Eberstadt alters the idioms of certain phrases - makes them a little antiquated, a little off - so that you feel as if you’re reading a translation. Phrases like, “You’re a real case,” “What’s biting you,” “You got the time, mister,” all a little out of joint with idiomatic English, remind you that these characters are not of your culture, your comfortable middle-class world, even if their author writes them in English, and even as their thoughts are laid bare by the omniscient narrator.
It is this subtlety and these fine details that make “Rat” such a pleasure. Another of these: the understated cinematic cast of the novel’s structure. Ms. Eberstadt works in carefully choreographed scenes, each either thematically or narratively linked to the next. This, with the vividness of the prose, makes it hard not to imagine the novel as film - something in the line of Terrance Mallick or Julian Schnabel, perhaps. Though, with Rat’s flight to England in the second half of the book, the story trades some of its interest in Schnabely sensuous detail (hibiscus, snaky wisteria, wild asparagus, bruise-colored artichokes) to grapple with the emotional and intellectual landscape generated by Rat and her father’s meeting - the shifting terrain of familiarity and strangeness as they, who look alike and share a certain quirk (a taste for going barefoot), try to get a sense of the other as parent and child.
Ms. Eberstadt’s novel is a quiet one. Indeed, it wears its literary stylishness and intelligence so lightly that you might only belatedly realize how impressive its clean prose and its trim, exquisite scenes are.
Emily Colette Wilkinson, who lives in Pasadena, Calif., was the 2008 winner of the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Young Reviewer’s Contest.
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