The story is about Lou Bertignac, a 13 year old Parisian girl. She is incredibly intelligent with an IQ of 160 and is two years ahead of people in her age group at school. She enjoys spending her free time conducting scientific experiments, developing theories about the ways in which the world works, counting things, defining things. She does this for entertainment, to stop herself thinking of matters that would ultimately make her cry. The biggest matter is the death of her baby sister and the effect it has had on her mother.
Her mother is shown to be distant. She doesn’t really speak, she’s stuck in a constant daze. Her father is worn out and tries to keep the family going on a day to day basis. Her father is forever educating her and there are scenes of tenderness between them throughout the text. It is evident that Lou learns from her father. “My Dad says that we’re the meanest to the ones we love because we know they’ll still love us.”
At school Lou has to give a presentation in front of the whole class. This isn’t ideal because she is fearful, vulnerable and constantly feels left out. She repeats the notion that she is the outsider. “All my life I’ve felt on the outside wherever I am – out of the picture, the conversation, at a distance, as though I were the only one able to hear the sounds or words that other’s can’t, and deaf to the words that they hear. As if I’m outside the frame, on the other side of a huge, invisible window.”
For her presentation she decides that she would talk about homelessness. She is a lover of people watching, something I can easily relate to, and at Austerlitz station, Lou decides to speak to a pretty, yet dirty and with one tooth missing, homeless girl called No. Lou decides that she will interview her for her school presentation.
Lou’s best friend in the class, Lucas, who is in fact two years older becomes her accomplice in the plot to rescue No for a better life, to get her off the streets. One thing that Lucas has that Lou doesn’t is that wisdom to know that she may not have the strength she needs to change the world. “We’re not strong enough, Lou, we’re not going to make it.”
What is quite touching is how Lou’s family accept No into their home with open arms. The effect that No has on the family is quite astonishing, more so for her parents than herself. Her mother seems to come alive again and is seen cooking, dressed, wearing make up and actually paying attention to what is going on around her. However, Vigan resists the fairytale happy ending. A bed and some home cooked meals are not enough to change her life for the better, to fix the ways in which she is broken. By having Lou as a narrator, the insight is natural and honest.
Nevertheless, things don’t always work out as we expect. Problems arise and No is seen drinking and taking medicine that is meant for Lou’s mother. Consequently she is asked to leave. Lucas takes her in as his family as usually no where to be seen. This doesn’t work out as planned. In the end the girls plan to run away together. Yet again this doesn’t quite turn out as No leaves her. Lou returns to her family.
It must be noted that the translation of this book is brilliant. It’s well written and well structured. It flows and it is a delight to read. The emotions are real. I found myself feeling the same pain as Lou. I can understand what it’s like to be an outsider. The reflection of home life and homelessness seem too real. The Parisian landscape is also described accurately. I absolutely loved this book. So touching and tender. I’ve already recommended it!
Big love x