“I loved my family, I believe. Even though I’d known no other and couldn’t really tell, I thought they were all right, decent people. But oblivious. They got lost in their thoughts. They had no sense of the other – of anyone outside our family, sometimes even me.”
“How to Behave in a Crowd” is the English-language debut novel for French writer
Camille Bordas, and it is a sparkling success. Eleven-year-old Isidore Mazal is the youngest and, seemingly, least exceptional of six children. While his brilliant and bizarre siblings (Simone, Aurore, Jeremie, Leonard, Berenice) seek endless academic accolades and eschew ‘other people’ like the plague –
“‘For sure men are born and remain free and equal in rights, but if they decide to grow up and never open a book, nothing says I have to endure their conversation.'”
– Dory (who would prefer to be called Izzie) is academically unexceptional, but he is deeply kind and empathetic in a way that makes him an anomaly amongst a family of anomalies.
“I knew my mother thought that of me. That I was kind, and good at reading people’s emotions. What I didn’t understand was why she thought it was a good thing.”
Dory feels invisible; he is largely ignored by his family and is an outcast in the real world, despite his extraordinary abilities as an empath. He spends much of his time planning to run away, not to seek attention, but more because he feels that his disappearance is what is required.
“I realize it might sound a little dramatic to sum things up this way, but I really thought back then, and with no particular bitterness, that nothing would be disrupted if I were to disintegrate. I’d never been part of a group, or willing to join one (try and fail: that’s when you got singled out for loserdom), and I was fine with that.”
Bordas’ beautiful, charming story is about identity and belonging. When the Mazal family is faced with the tragic death of “the father” (as their patriarch is known), this hilariously hyperbolic family of over-educated people must come to grips with the fact that they are unprepared to build lives of their own. Armed with extraneous degrees, few leave their bedrooms and, even when locked into a small space together for days on end, aren’t able to communicate even with one another.
“‘There should be a postdoctoral program to teach you how to resume a normal life,’ [Aurore] went on. ‘Or a whole PhD program. “Life Experience Studies,” or something. The student would have to gather a bibliography on the kind of life he’d like to pursue, and his professors would orient him toward potential life partners – friends and lovers – according to his research interests. . . . I mean, people say that to acquire life experience you have to actually live and have experiences, but there must be another way, right? It can’t be that any experience is valuable.'”
Their savior and leader, they are surprised to discover, is the kind-hearted Dory. It is he, alone, who unwittingly keeps the family together and teaches them “How to Behave in a Crowd.” Bordas’ charming misanthropes are beautifully crafted and irresistibly magnetic. Her prose is witty, dark, and exquisite. What an exciting newcomer to the world of English literary fiction!
Thank you to Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, for providing a complimentary Advance Reader Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “How to Behave in a Crowd” was published in the United States on August 15, 2017.