Sunday, May 9, 2010

Fernanda Eberstadt writes a coming of age story that necessitates finding a father.

I can’t remember where I first read about Fernanda Eberstadt’s latest novel, but I know I downloaded it onto my Kindle some time ago. This weekend I was happy to find it there.


Fernanda Eberstadt’s latest novel, Rat (304 pages, Knopf, $24.95), tells the story of the young girl whose nickname suggests the unpleasant rodent of the title. But in fact, she is an engaging young girl, whom we come to know into the years of early adolescence. She lives with her single mother in a small apartment in a little village in the south of France, in an area called Pyrénées-Orientales. Rat’s mother Vanessa had a brief affair with a wealthy English tourist, and when she realized she was pregnant, she was pleased and decided to keep the child. Over the years, Gillem, as Rat’s father is called, has never met her, but he has sent child support checks to Vanessa from the moment he was sure that the child was his.

The first half, or really two-thirds, of the novel concern the relationship between Rat and her mother. Vanessa works as a brocanteuse: she buys and sells goods for the several local markets in her area. This is something of a hand to mouth existence, but she does not dip into the money that Gillem sends her, and instead she saves it for Rat. Still, she feels a smoldering anger that this man has never deigned to visit or write them directly, and Rat, who is really named Celia after Gillem’s mother, feels this resentment, and she internalizes it.

For Rat, this feeling of resentment is combined with a brooding desperation that no one really wanted her to come into the world. She gets something of a chip on her shoulder about this, and even when her sometimes distracted mother assures her that she loves her, Rat feels that she will need to find this father to find out the real story.

In the meantime, though, things at home change over time. Vanessa has a dear friend, Souad, another single mother, an African, who is dying of AIDS. After she passes, her son Morgan comes to live with Rat and her mother. At first Rat resents this intrusion: she is quite selfish in her desperation to keep her mother to herself. But in time, she comes to care for Morgan deeply, and she feels a great need to protect the African boy who is six years younger than herself.

She has friends, especially Jérôme, a slightly older boy who is her best friend, and some of his friends. In some ways, though, her mother is her closest friend. When her mother first takes up with the thoroughly unpleasant Thierry, a tall and thin slacker who is exciting for Vanessa, Rat distrusts him. Then later, when she sees him doing what could only be described as “abusing” Morgan in the middle of the night, she understandably loses her cool. Vanessa thinks she is exaggerating, as usual, and coloring things in drastic terms for effect.
Rat gets so angry about this that she sets off to find her English father. First she emails him, and then she sets out across France with Morgan in tow, ever more determined to track him down. When an email with his address and phone number comes back (after several weeks), she is overjoyed. For two minors to get across the English Channel is something of a challenge, but Rat is nothing if not resourceful, and they make it across into Southern England.

When they call Gillem, he tells them to take a taxi to London, and from there, the novel concerns relations between Rat and her father. We have been witness to the nerves with which Gillem approaches the idea of Rat, and his wife is certainly skeptical too. But when Rat arrives in London, they both fall for her.

Still it takes some time for Rat to confront matters with her father. When she finally does, after they have visited his mother, who is ailing with Alzheimer’s syndrome, there is something of a breakthrough there. She still wants to go back to her mother, as she finally decides to do, but here is a man who really does care about her, and who seems desperate to show her how deeply he cares.

This is a very touching story. Rat is a remarkable character, and the situations in both homes are richly displayed. There are wonderful comic touches here, and there is an understanding of what it means to be human too.

Fernanda Eberstadt

At Vroman's, Powell's, Amazon.

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