A Cinderella From Southern France

Fernanda Eberstadt tries something very different: a fairy tale.

Fernanda Eberstadt's Rat.

For most of her career, Fernanda Eberstadt has written novels that are nothing if not grown-up, deliciously messy affairs that deal with market capitalism, with art, and with the bitter ways that romantic love can disappoint. She seems blessed with just the CV to springboard a writer concerned with rarified worlds. She was born in 1960 to parents who were art-collecting Park Avenue fixtures. One grandfather was a famous financier; the other was Ogden Nash. She went to Brearley. As a teenager she worked at Andy Warhol’s Factory and for Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum. She graduated from Oxford. She published her first story collection at the age of 25 to great acclaim.

She proceeded to write what she knew. When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth (1997) explored the life and times of a genius painter roaming at large in the 1980s New York art scene. The Furies (2003) told the story of a wealthy heiress and her quest to promote global capitalism.

Eberstadt, who has lived in southern France for many years, recently made a sharp turn in trajectory with Little Money Street (2006), a nonfiction book about the Gypsies of Perpignan. In her latest novel, she continues her exploration of marginal living in the South of France. Rat is told from a child’s point of view. Like a little girl in a fairy tale, the title character moves through a mysterious world where unseen forces are at work.

Rat (real name Celia) and her mother, Vanessa, live by the sea in the Pyrenees-Orientales. It sounds romantic, but it’s not, really. The coast is a “harsh blazing Mediterranean flatland of marsh, delta, bulrushes, sandy plain. This plain is Rat’s home. Its blistering sun is her sun; its thistles, parched hummocks, and reeds are the only vegetation she knows.” This is the kind of landscape where the winds are so strong, so bitter, and so unrelenting that they have names.

Fifteen-year-old Rat roams as she pleases and comes home to a funky setup. She and Vanessa live in the old wine cellar of a farm that has been broken up into apartments. Again, this sounds romantic, but closer inspection reveals a flooded living room, a backed-up toilet. Rat, though, loves her home. The tenants of the old farm make a kind of informal commune, an extended family.

Vanessa makes her living as a brocanteuse, buying and selling old stuff. She is part of a French tradition of scavenging for a living, which dates back to the gleaners—women and children who for centuries have picked over harvested fields for whatever seeds and food were left behind. Vanessa, in other words, is a magpie. She loves old magazines and photographs—glamour trash. “The walls of her apartment are plastered with the kind of things she loves: printed cocktail napkins from a bar in Spain, a leopard-skin carnival mask with gold whiskers, photo spreads from old magazines.”

A lot of these old photos are of Celia Kidd, “a top model in London in the 1960s,” who happens to be Rat’s grandmother. Kidd and her son Gillem stayed in the area many years ago; they became objects of fascination to the local teenagers. Young Vanessa seduced Gillem—some of his mama’s allure rubbed off on him—and Rat was the result. Gillem is long gone, although, unbeknownst to Rat, he has been sending child-support payments, which Vanessa has been squirreling away in an account for Rat’s adulthood.

In these happy, if somewhat shabby, circumstances of Rat’s life, Eberstadt has created an exotic corner not quite cut off from time, but almost, and we know it won’t last. When Vanessa’s friend Souad dies of AIDS, her young son Morgan comes to live with Vanessa and Rat. At first Rat resents sharing her mother, but Morgan calls forth an unexpected protectiveness in this feral girl. “She had a sense of order that was rudimentary but still more intact than her mother’s. … If Rat noticed that Morgan had been wearing the same socks for a week or that his toes were gray with dirt, it got to her.”

It’s interesting to see Eberstadt writing about a child. In her earlier novels, she has been entirely unafraid to sit in judgment on her characters and their choices. With Rat, a child in a difficult situation, Eberstadt is unfettered by her usual preoccupations with morality. The result is a dreamily sensuous mode—set in relief when Eberstadt trains her more characteristically critical eye on Vanessa: She’s the quintessentially irresponsible, post-hippie, flaky single mom. She’s missing only one element of the cliché: an abusive, marginal boyfriend. Eventually, she acquires one of these. Thierry is barely employed, dresses like Johnny Cash, smokes, drinks, and, worst of all in this crowd, is no fun. It seems inevitable that Thierry would go after one of the kids. Early one morning Rat discovers him doing something—she’s not quite sure what—to Morgan.

It’s here that Eberstadt seamlessly shifts register. Her fascination with marginality turns into pursuit of archetypal meaning. Rat and Morgan set off without a sou to find her father in England. This odyssey, which takes up the middle of the book, is half giddy freedom and half ugly hardship, like the rest of Rat’s life. All along, Rat’s story—the girl who’s secretly a kind of princess—has had fairy-tale overtones. As she and Morgan move through the French landscape, Eberstadt uses their journey to open the book into the resonant terrain of the folk tale. The children become heroic questers. They even encounter the requisite folk-tale characters—a donor, a helper, and so forth.

Rat experiences a letdown when she arrives in England, and Eberstadt’s writing flattens as well. When Rat—who has fantasized all along about the new life she’ll find in England—finally meets her father, she finds an upper-middle-class artist living in a London terrace. Gillem is married to a mumsy, kind woman. They have an overprotected little whiner—and perhaps Eberstadt draws the contrast between this weeny kid and Rat a little too starkly.

Eberstadt has placed us squarely back in the world of arty, moneyed people. Here, she tries to see it anew through Rat’s eyes, but somehow it just doesn’t work. We lose both the freshness and immediacy of Rat’s experience, and the knowing perspective of the earlier novels. It’s as though Eberstadt can’t quite maintain the chimerical spell she’s woven so far, but can’t quite bring herself to conjure up that old grown-up glamour, either. When Rat briefly meets Celia Kidd—the queen to Gillem’s prince thus far, but now struck with Alzheimer’s—the encounter feels scanty and weightless.

Despite the saggy bit at the end with the biological grandmother, the book is as tight as a fairy tale, so deftly woven with imagery that you realize that Rat is both Cinderella and the Frog Prince. The emergence of her hidden fineness is inevitable, and no less thrilling for it. Like a folk-tale hero, she moves simply through the world toward her goal: self-knowledge.

Rat’s simplicity is hard-won, the work of a writer who knows exactly what she’s doing. But I, for one, miss the old messiness. Eberstadt’s previous novels—her novels of adulthood—were brave and a little eccentric in their moral investigations. Her characters played on fearsome, glittering stages, and their choices had big consequences. Focusing, laserlike, on the story of this one girl, Eberstadt has created a rigorous, elegant piece of art. But she has also turned away from her own special knowledge of her own very, very large world. In a strange way, she was closer to the gleaners themselves in her New York books. Like a magpie, there Eberstadt was drawn toward what was gold.

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