Sam's Reviews > How to Behave in a Crowd

How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas
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really liked it
bookshelves: 2017-reads

Short pitch to see if you'd like How to Behave in a Crowd: meet the Mazals, kind of like the French version of "The Royal Tenenbaums", a family comprised of a somewhat absent father and solid, grounded mother to a cadre of snarky, sharp, smart, somewhat asocial savant children. We're exposed to the Mazals through our narrator, Izidore but more commonly known as Dory, youngest son of this unique tribe, less intelligent and accomplished than his older siblings but also deeply emotional, empathetic, and extremely curious about his world and the larger world around him. Camille Bordas' first novel in English is witty, funny, smart and occasionally sad, and features some truly formidable female characters in Dory's family and his schooldfriend Denise, so this was a welcome surprise of a novel for me, something I went in knowing nothing about and was delighted reading from beginning to end.

While the Mazal children (Berenice, Leonard, Aurore, Jeremie, and Simone) for the most part have skipped multiple years of schooling and are singularly dedicated to pursuing their own individual goals in academia and other fields of passion, Dory is trying to navigate being the only normal level child in a family of geniuses, and also become socially adept or at least functional, while somewhat hamstrung by his overly smart and less socially aware or caring siblings. His mother knows Dory is different from her other children, and though she tries to reach all of them and ensure they're well rounded and can function outside of their bubbles, it's a difficult prospect:

"Aren't the best parties supposed to be phony, though?" Leonard said, to our mother's surprise.
"I believe the best parties are the ones where one enjoys oneself," my mother responded diplomatically.
"Exactly," Leonard said. "By finding a small crowd with which to make fun of the larger crowd."
"Well as long as you find yourself a crowd, I guess. That's all I want for you," my mother said.
"No need to find a crowd," Leonard said. "Jeremie and Simone will do just fine."

And goodness this book made me laugh! I'm not usually the reader who gravitates towards comic novels, but this one walks the line well and delivered its lines with sharpness and truth. There's not much overarching plot per se, other than a family tragedy occurring for the Mazals that upsets their standard equilibrium as a family, and Dory pushed to grow up and start considering alternate viewpoints of life besides those of his highly intelligent but socially unengaged siblings. And it's in the characters' conversations and interactions with friends and family that author Camille Bordas won my affection. Simone, Dory's closest sibling, is one of Bordas' best characters: very sharp and forceful and intelligent, but also with acknowledged vanity and a frustration with most everyone that doesn't operate on her level, including her siblings but never Dory, her future biographer. And where Dory is the heart of the novel, Simone is the head, breaking things down for a Dory and the reader as circumstances force hard conversations and change the Mazal children's outlook.

"Maybe you should be the dictator," she said, like it was the best idea she's had in a while.
"I wouldn't know what to do with power," I said.
"I'd help you! I have a few ideas for a better society."
"I don't doubt it," I said, "but how would you telling me what to do be different than actually being the dictator yourself?"
"Dictators have advisors, you know? No one expect you to come up with all the laws."
"What do you think should be my first measure as a dictator?" I said.
"If I were your advisor," Simone said, "I would make commenting on the internet illegal. I don't think people should express themselves as much as they think they should."
"I'll keep that in mind," I said.
"Obviously, you should leave this exchange out of my biography."

And then, for a combination of truth and humor and a unique perspective, consider Dory asking his mother about love, a fairly normal line of questioning for an adolescent:

"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." It sounded like she might have a rehearsed speech about love as well. "When people talk about love, Dory, they call it love because it is a festive word, like 'champagne'. You hear the cork pop just saying 'champagne'. But what they're really talking about when they say 'love' is attachment, ties, which are, admittedly, less glamorous words. And when they say you love only once," she went on, "they don't mean it in a cheesy romantic way or anything, you know? It's very practical, in fact: there is no time in life to get to really know and... tie yourself to more than one person."
"That's a lot of pressure," I said.
"What is?"
"That you only have time in life to love one person. What if you set your mind on the wrong one and waste years on her?"
"Well, then you're fucked," my mother said.

And it doesn't just focus on Dory and his family: Bordas casts the net to extend to small French town the Mazals are from but not really of, the very special tribe of outsiders that the rest of the towns inhabitants interact with in ways ranging from stalking (the succession of gentleman callers for Berenice, Aurore, and Simone) to bizarre (Simone's pen friend who becomes Dory's first big crush and sexual awakening). The town also boasts the oldest living woman in France, whose age is used for illustrative and plot purposes, and Dory forms a deeper acquaintance with her as she teaches him German and town rumors surrounding her past are revealed:

"I suppose those people you're talking about still haven't registered how old I actually am. I was already old when the Nazis started rising to power. My husband had died. He couldn't have been a Nazi even if he'd wanted to, poor Thomas darling. Not that he would've wanted to be a Nazi, of course, that's just a way of speaking. He was a German deserter from the First World War, that's how old I am. But maybe they don't teach you about the First World War in school anymore."
"They do," I said, in a senseless attempt to defend my education, given I knew next to nothing about the First World War. "The First World War was with the trenches and the Second with the concentration camps."
"How specific," Daphne said.

This story, roughly encapsulating a coming of age tale and a portrait of a family, is one of the more charming reads I've had in 2017, and yet for all its charm, it's also full of black humor and some dark situations. I'll say one of main reasons I didn't rate this book higher is that for all of Dory's warmth and goodness and empathetic ignorance turning to knowledge, he does pale a bit as a foil to some of the fiery, spirited, fierce women in this story. But overall I really enjoyed reading this, and definitely recommend it for readers who like quirky family tales, some smart writing, and like a good laugh with an occasional French twist. 4 solid stars.

-received an ARC on edelweiss, thanks to Tim Duggan Books and Penguin Random House
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Reading Progress

January 4, 2017 – Started Reading
January 4, 2017 – Shelved
January 4, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
January 4, 2017 –
page 100
January 5, 2017 – Shelved as: 2017-reads
January 5, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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Angela M Sam, your fantastic reviews are not helping me keep my tbr list at bay - lol . I'm going to Edelweiss right now to request it !

Angela M So it's not listed as to request on Edelweiss. I'll check NetGalley & watch Edelweiss:(

Angela M So this is how absent minded I am . I already requested it from NetGalley! Now I really hope I get it !

message 4: by Sam (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sam Haha, it's hard to keep straight which site I get which title from! I hope you get it from NetGalley!!! Glad you enjoyed the review!

message 5: by Diane S ☔ (new) - added it

Diane S ☔ Nice review, Sam. I have this and will read a bit later.

Larry H Great review, Sam! I'll have to request this!!

message 7: by Sam (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sam Hope you enjoy this, Diane!!

message 8: by Sam (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sam Larry, I think you'll like this: hope you also enjoy it!

Kristin (KC) - Traveling Sister Very nice review, Sam! Sounds good :-)

message 10: by Sam (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sam Kristin (KC) wrote: "Very nice review, Sam! Sounds good :-)"

It is! Sometimes all I'll want is a cute read with a charming story, and this one had the benefit of being weird, French, smart, dark, and funny as well. I hope you like this, and will be looking forward to your feedback on it!!

Angela M Just got it from NetGalley, Sam! Have a number of others to read first but will get to it . Thanks!

Roger Brunyate I liked it that you found room at the end to explain why this is a four-star review, not five. And I agree. I simply don't see describing the book as funny, though, except for some momentary passages—though I know this is the publicist, not you.

message 13: by Sam (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sam Roger wrote: "I liked it that you found room at the end to explain why this is a four-star review, not five. And I agree. I simply don't see describing the book as funny, though, except for some momentary passag..."

Thank you, Roger! It's definitely not explicitly a comedic novel and nothing was side-splittingly funny, but I did find a lot to at least smile about while reading it.

Roger Brunyate Yes, I smiled too.

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