After several unsuccessful attempts at trying to find a book that could sustain my interest, I finally managed to find and finish How to Behave in a Crowd. I typically pick up so many recommended books from the library that I don’t remember where I heard about this book — it’s not a best-selling or award-winning book that everyone knows about. But once I started reading it, there were two main aspects to it that captured my attention and sustained it until the end: one, it is set in France and written by a French author (Camille Bordas’ previous books are in French but this one is in English); and two, it is a first person narration by a eleven year old boy. Not only was it so interesting to be immersed in a culture I know very little about, there is also something very clean and direct about a narration from a child’s perspective — it is free from the convoluted thinking that adults tend to have.
The book itself is not so much a story as a slice of life — a slice of about two years in the life of Isidore Mazal, or Dory as he is called, the youngest of six children living in a small French town with his family. While there is nothing particularly remarkable about his parents, the same cannot be said about his siblings, all of whom are academically brilliant and exceptionally bright — they are always reading or busy with research and other intellectual pursuits, with little interest in socializing or being with other people. While Dory is different from them and is more “normal,” growing up in a house overrun with high-achieving siblings makes him a lot more mature compared to other kids of his age.
Shortly after the book opens, the father dies unexpectedly from a heart attack, and since he was away from home on work a lot, the family is, for the most part, able to carry on with their lives as before. Dory’s mother continues to get a widow’s pension, and there is no financial impact either, at least none that Dory can discern. His siblings continue on their high-achieving academic paths, with three of them eventually getting PhDs, and the eldest even moving to the US to get a second PhD. In France, PhD defenses are so long and such a memorable event that the entire family attends, that after the PhD defense of the third sibling, one of Dory’s brothers (who is into music rather than academics) quips: “Sometimes I wonder if [our] father didn’t die when he did just to avoid all the PhD defenses.”
While there is no dramatic fallout as such from the father’s death that happens early in the book, we see that in the course of the following two years, most of Dory’s siblings battle with disappointments and struggle to live up to the promising future everyone thought was in store for them. Dory himself had no great expectations to begin with, so there are no academic disappointments in store for him, but on the personal front, he has to deal with the death of one of his closest friends, Denise, who committed suicide. Even though she was severely depressed and had been talking about suicide for years, it still comes as a shock to him. But Dory copes without falling apart, just as he did after the death of his father, and the book ends with the subtle understanding that Dory, despite being the youngest, has become the source of comfort and support for his troubled older siblings.
In addition to the uniqueness of the setting (France) and the unconventional narration (by a pre-teen boy), what really amazed me about this book was the steady sprinkling of quips and insights throughout, to the extent that I actually had to highlight the pages on which they appeared with Post-it tabs. I already mentioned the one about the father dying to avoid sitting through his kids’ long and tedious PhD defenses, which I thought was really funny. Here is another one, which is what Dory thinks when Denise tells him matter-of-factly that he’s a conformist and goes on to add that all children are.
I took this as an insult but then I realized taking the work “conformist” as an insult was the most conformist reaction and so I let it slide.
And this is where Dory and Denise are discussing how they are advised to be strong after tragedies and have the courage to hold on to the small pleasures of the moment. This is what Denise has to say:
“Courage my ass. It doesn’t take courage to be in the moment. What really takes guts is to live each day as if you were going to hang around for the next ten years at least. Account for something. Live up to something. Now, that is hard. That requires a little more pondering and reflection, a little more strength.”
Another one, this time by Simone, one of Dory’s older sisters, when and Dory are discussing dictatorship and why good people never want to become dictators:
“All good people want is to be left alone and help those around them. The problem is good people lack ambition.”
And finally, this is what Dory’s mother tells him when he asks her about finding another husband or boyfriend some months after his father dies:
“It’s your memories with the person that become your love for the person, you know? And building memories takes time. A lot of time, actually. I don’t think I can do it again. I don’t believe I have enough time left to do it again.”
I found it amazing that a young author can have such profound insights and is able to capture them so effortlessly in her writing. How to Behave in a Crowd may not have won a lot of critical acclaim or commercial success, but I considered it a rare find for its dollops of wisdom sprinkled so unassumingly throughout the book.
How to Behave in a Crowd
Author: Camille Bordas
Publisher: Tim Duggan Books
Publication Date: August 2017
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.