Readers should not be put off by the title, for this is a splendid novel, interesting in the risks it takes, in its ambition and scope—a book that deserves to be savored and discussed.
Rat by Fernanda Eberstadt, Knopf, 304 pages, $25.95
Reviewed by Roberta Silman
They have always been with us, those “casual offspring,” to use Iris Murdoch’s phrase—children born to strangers who meet, have sex, and part forever. But what of the children? In her fifth novel, the accomplished Fernanda Eberstadt turns her attention to two of them and creates a work that expands our vision of people not only struggling on the poverty line in southern France but who are also struggling to make meaningful lives for themselves and those kids who came into the world under less than wonderful circumstances.
This is primarily the story of Celia Bonnet, whom her mother nicknames Ratkin as a baby, then Rat as she grows into a teenager, who is all “elbows and moods.” The story begins when Rat is a little girl trying to write a thank-you note to her father for birthday money he has never sent, money that has been fabricated by her wily and enigmatic mother, Vanessa. This father was a proper English “toff” who had come to the Pyrenees on holiday with his mother, the famous Twiggy-like model, Celia Kidd, and was attracted to Vanessa, a local girl in a nightclub. Years later Rat and her mother talk about her birth and how Vanessa’s mother, the respectable Meme Catherine, was horrified by Vanessa’s decision to have the baby:
“I guess nobody was too happy about me being born,” ventures Rat.
Her mother’s eyes are on the road.
“I was,” she says finally. Her tone is so brusquely definitive, so quelling of any doubt, that it brings the conversation to a close.
As a result of her decision, Vanessa is truly on her own, and she and Rat live a scrappy, surprisingly contented life in a small village near the Catalan border where Vanessa becomes a brocanteuse, a dealer in second-hand goods that she sells at flea markets. What her English father would call a “ragpicker.” But it is “way better than waitressing . . . one of the few jobs where a single mother could bring along her kid: bung Rat in the van with a lollipop and a stack of old comics, and she’d be happy all day.”
Although the shadow of Rat’s absent father hovers over the novel from the first sentence—“You try calling someone ‘Daddy’ whom you’ve never met in your life.”—the first half of the novel portrays the close relationship between Vanessa and Rat, the almost unbelievable freedom Rat has, and the attractive person she becomes, especially after Vanessa adopts Morgan, the Arab child of her best friend, Souad, who dies of AIDS.
We get to know Rat in all her moods, sometimes fiercely loyal to her puzzling mother, sometimes exasperated by her, and never suspecting that Vanessa is really quite well-off because of the child support payments from Rat’s father, Gillem McKane, money she has been dutifully saving all these years. Vanessa’s opaqueness becomes more than exasperating, however, when Rat finds her mother’s boyfriend, Thierry, in the act of molesting Morgan.
“What are you talking about, Rat? Thierry is not gay. You, maybe, he might try it on with, if he was drunk enough. But Morgan? A little boy? Are you out of your mind?” . . .
“I don’t believe you. You’ve always had it in for Thierry.” . . .
“You don’t believe me?” Rat’s voice has hiked up squeaky. “I’ve always told you he’s had this weird thing about Morgan . . . And now he’s gone and done it, he tried to rape him. And you still don’t believe me.”
Vanessa’s staring at her. “You’re fucked up,” she says, finally.
And suddenly the novel takes a sharp turn, and we are swept up in Rat’s fury and her determination to leave Vanessa’s home with Morgan in tow. Thus begins a picaresque adventure as Rat, now fifteen, and Morgan, age nine, make their way across France to London stay with Rat’s father, whom she has found on the Internet and emailed. In some ways, this is the most interesting part of the book because, for all her freedom, Rat is still quite innocent and as modest as her home and village were, she and Morgan had lived in a relative cocoon of safety. Now she has to marshal all her intelligence and skill to survive.
How Rat matures, becoming more and more aware of the hazards inherent in her decision, and how she maneuvers them to their destination is written with stunning urgency. Approaching the British Isles, she muses:
Last time they were on a boat with Max, Vanessa, Souad, crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. Back when Morgan had a mother and Vanessa had a decent boyfriend. Back before everything in their world got broken.
Yet, here they are, having survived, with luck and panache. When they finally find themselves at Gillem’s doorstep more surprises await them all. What has made the journey so remarkable is Eberstadt’s ability to take us so acutely into the minds of these two resilient children, who are far more complicated than they appear. As the plot makes turn after turn, you feel yourself feeling with them, experiencing their excitements and disappointments with an almost breathless eagerness. It wouldn’t be fair to tell how things actually unfold to a conclusion that is, in its own way, unexpected, yet right.
Although I loved this book and found Rat and Morgan wonderfully engaging, I am not sure Eberstadt is as successful with Gillem and the English characters who surround him. And I wish she had worked harder to find a more appealing title. When I was urging a friend to read this book, she looked at me skeptically, exactly the way Rat might have, and asked, “Why would I want to read a book called Rat?” I hope other readers will not be put off, for this is a splendid novel, interesting in the risks it takes, in its ambition and scope—a book that deserves to be savored and discussed.
Roberta Silman is the author of Blood Relations, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning The World Again, as well as the children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. She can be reached at email@example.com.