Since the 1980s, when she pubUshedthe first of her four earlier novels, Fernanda Eberstadt has had her pen dipped in a particularly upper-class American Zeitgeist. Did you realize she'd had a lousy day, and needed mint tea and a back rub, or were you a selfish brat?" Vanessa is similarly uninterested in Morgan's interior life, which Rat recognizes is quite fearful in a way that bodes poorly for the future: "When Morgan finally starts talking, she discovers that his imagination is dark, fearsome, vindictive, that he's never forgotten a mean look anyone gave him, that for him the world is full of traps, of enemies waiting to humiliate him, cheat him of what's his. . . .
On Fiction A Teenager’s Odyssey By Sarah Harrison Smith S INCE THE 1980S, when she published the first of her is a phenomenon in our current condition that makes reading four earlier novels, Fernanda Eberstadt has had her about adolescence especially appealing. At its most base—in pen dipped in a particularly upper-class American the fascination the Twilight vampire series seems to cast on zeitgeist. With her new, less tortured Rat (Knopf, 293 middle-aged mothers, for example—it seems to be the titilla- pp., $25.95), she seems set on finding a larger audi- tion of thwarted desire. The Harry Potter books also lure adults, ence—and maybe a movie deal. In this very enjoyable book albeit for other reasons: the elbow-nudging delight of J.K. Eberstadt brings all her established narrative strengths to bear Rowling’s inventive language, the fun house mirror of the mag- on a story that is utterly contemporary. She leaves the WASPs ical world, the glamour of Hogwarts (so much more interesting behind, and good riddance. than any real boarding school), and the intensity of Harry’s Her previous work of fiction, The Furies, was an intense friendships. Eberstadt resists these clichés and the convention- and ultimately depressing account of a passionate marriage al thresholds of coming-of-age fiction. If there is another novel that went from rapturously happy to bitter and destructive after similar to hers in subject matter, it would be Esther Freud’s the birth of a child. It depicted an extreme case of the potential Hideous Kinky (1992), about two sisters growing up in Moroc- tensions in a dual-career marriage—over money, childcare, co with their hippie British mother, but Rat has a lot more spark sex, and sleep—with deep and painful perception. The ending, and scope. as brutal as King Lear’s, took the reader to the quintessence of Perhaps we are a little like the Victorians, who, fetishizing parental—in this instance maternal—despair. And like Claire the innocence of children, used them to access a realm of fan- Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, The Furies had the feeling tasy seemingly inaccessible through older, more experienced of a roman à clef. New Yorkers might in fact have thought they characters. Eberstadt’s “Rat,” whose real name is the very knew the characters, or at least been at the same party or col- proper “Celia,” isn’t exactly innocent, but she is pure of heart; lege with them before their lives went horribly wrong. (Disclo- well-intentioned, determined, chaste, judgmental, and funda- sure: The author and I attended two of the same schools and mentally free. This is a girl who can get along without money have worked for two of the same magazines, but despite those and can finagle herself across international borders by telling a coincidences have only met in passing.) good story. She is never childish; the world is her oyster and Rat takes you to less familiar territory; no privileged New she is obstinate and selfish enough to make her own choices. Yorkers here. Rather, it spans a few eventful months in the life That may be what an adult reader, who is probably defined by of a scrappy 15-year-old girl from an unglamorous coastal town inescapable circumstances, will find so alien and fascinating in France who, to protect her adopted brother, leaves their home, such as it is, in search of her biological English father. S ARAH H ARRISON S MITH , a longtime contributor to the Though Rat is not young adu
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