Readers have met kids like this in books before: barefoot and drifter-free due to family circumstance, becoming streetwise early on, and toughened by a life envied (or feared) by peers still imprisoned back at the schoolyard. Fernanda Eberstadt’s fifth novel, Rat, introduces another one, Celia Bonnet, a.k.a. Rat. She’s biding her teens in southern France with her mother Vanessa; meanwhile, she dreams of a different life in London with the father she’s never met, the wealthy, worldly artist son of a formerly famous ’60s fashion model.
Living in a wine-cave-turned-flat with lice-infested hair and no shoes, and playfully described as “a savage,” Rat carries on with Vanessa as if they were girlfriends, with Rat even wondering, “Isn’t it mothers who are supposed to worry about daughters?” Vanessa flips through old copies of Paris Match, enlivened by its gossipy tales of movie stars; Rat collects vintage fashion clips of the grandmother (and namesake) she’s never met, the model whose looks Rat has inherited, though she effectively conceals them through childish neglect. The family expands with the addition of Morgan, the orphaned son of a family friend, begrudgingly accepted and eventually beloved by Rat as an adopted brother. And so goes the blessed, happy life of the poor by the sea near the Spanish border.
But of course, along comes the archetypal alcoholic and abusive new boyfriend Thierry to overturn the simple bliss of the poverty-stricken trio. When Vanessa sides with Thierry in a dispute over his alleged advances toward Morgan, the lure of London and Rat’s lost father becomes too much to resist. She packs up, grabs Morgan, and sets off in hopeful pursuit of the unknown other half of her life.
A deceptively simple construct written in uncomplicated prose, Eberstadt’s Huck-Finn-in-the-Pyrenees premise unfurls into a complex commentary on everything from identity and language to domesticity and terrorism. Along Rat and Morgan’s journey, the book becomes a kind of post-9/11 novel as seen through the other end of the telescope. American readers are plunged into unfamiliar backdrops, with scenes set during the 2005 French riots and the immigration paranoia between continental Europe and Britain. Delving too much into the outcome of Rat’s exodus to London would betray the book’s many deft revelations. In some ways, Rat is an old story that’s been told countless times. But the fact that so much of it feels entirely new means it must contain something like wisdom.