Fernanda Eberstadt's Rat.

Reading between the lines.
April 28 2010 7:02 AM

A Cinderella From Southern France

Fernanda Eberstadt tries something very different: a fairy tale.

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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.

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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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Claire Dederer is the author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses.

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