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.

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.

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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."

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