Paris in July is an annual event hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea – it’s now in its seventh year. Given recent awful events in France, reading a French novel seemed a good way to show support.
No and Me by Delphine de Vigan
Translated by George Miller
When first published in English translation in 2010, No and Me was a true crossover bestseller. Although not written for the YA market, Bloomsbury brought it out in adult and young adult editions. As an issue-based story with adolescent protagonists, teenagers will definitely love it too.
Lou Bertignac is an ‘intellectually precocious’ thirteen year old with an IQ of 160. She’s skipped two years at school to be in year eleven, where she’s seen as a bit of an oddity by everyone except Lucas, who sticks up for her and on whom she has a big crush. Shy in class, she’d love nothing more than to get out of doing a bit presentation on a project, but faced down by teacher Mr Marin, she blurts out that she will do a case study of homelessness among teenage girls.
My mother hasn’t been out of the flat in years and my father cries secretly in the bathroom. That’s what I should have told him.
Then, with a single stroke of his pen, Mr Marin would have crossed me off his list. (p4)
On days when she gets out of school early, Lou likes to go people watching at the Gare d’Austerlitz. It’s there she meets a girl:
‘You got a smoke?’
She was wearing dirty khaki trousers, an old jacket with holes in the elbows and a Benetton scarf like the one my mother’s got at the bottom of the wardrobe like a souvenir of her youth.
‘No, sorry. I don’t smoke. I’ve got some gum, though.’
She made a face, then held out her hand, and I gave her the packet, which she stuck in her bag.
‘Hi, I’m No. What’s your name?’
‘I’m Lou… Lou Bertignac.’
The girls meet again and No lets Lou buy her a hot chocolate. Gradually Lou gets to hear a little of No’s story and her life on the streets, she’s eighteen but looks younger. No agrees to be the subject of Lou’s presentation for which she will get top marks. But there is the question of what will happen when Lou’s project is ended.
Back home, we find out that Lou’s mum has been severely depressed for years after her much longed for baby sister’s cot death. Her mother is virtually catatonic, her father struggles to keep it together.
When Lou finds out that No has no friends’ sofas left to surf and no night-shelter place, she dares to ask if she can bring No back to their apartment to stay. Surprisingly, her parents say yes, and No moves in. Too skeletal and frail to do anything but help around the house a little, No begins to bring Lou’s mother back, generating a little sibling rivalry in Lou, but to Lou, they do begin to feel like a family again. But it can’t last – when No gets a job as a chambermaid in a hotel, and we find out more of her life-story, the balance changes…
You may have read Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (reviewed here) and although I loved it, the character of Paloma, the erudite philosophizing twelve year old was just too wise for her years. Lou may be brainy, but emotionally, she is still learning to understand the world. Being with older kids at school and having to go through her family’s own problems lets her see things, but not necessarily understand them, her own response has been to show OCD tendencies.
Providing a solid grounding for Lou and No is Lucas. He has his own complicated home situation to manage too, but is the stable friend that the girls need, although Lou wonders what he’d be like to kiss.
With Lou as our narrator throughout, we see all the events through her youthful eyes. Thanks to the author’s lucid prose in Lou’s voice, however, we can read between the lines to grasp No’s predicament as a homeless girl, Lou’s parents’ sadness and Lou’s own feelings of being a geeky outsider. The issues are many but are discussed clearly, although not at length – the novel is all the better for being able to be read in one sitting at under 250 widely spaced pages.
No and Me is a charming novel of surprising depth and I really recommend it.
* * * * *
Source: Own copy
Delphine de Vigan, No and Me (2010, trans George Miller) – Bloomsbury paperback, 256 pages.