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.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

Advertisement

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.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
  Life
Outward
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Space: The Next Generation
Oct. 19 2014 11:45 PM An All-Female Mission to Mars As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.