Writers are drawn to oddballs and outsiders, in much the way that dogs out for a walk veer toward fellow canines. The endearing pre-adolescent narrator of Camille Bordas' novel, How To Behave in a Crowd, is the youngest of six siblings growing up in a small French village. He's the odd man out because he's the most normal of the lot: All of his older sisters and brothers have skipped multiple grades, and three of them earn PhDs during the course of this book.
Eleven-year-old Isidore Mazal, whose family calls him Dory — though he prefers Izzy — is the exception in an exceptional family. He's a decent student, but he hasn't skipped a single grade. He's a worrier, and it troubles him that he seems to be "the only one to notice things," from a stain on the couch to his mother's insomnia. His siblings, holed up in their rooms studying, are "oblivious ... lost in their thoughts," which aggravates his sense that it's up to him to do something to alleviate the problems he sees.
Their mother, a positive force, refuses to be discouraged by the fact that five of her six children are neither happy nor sociable, two qualities she holds supreme. But their father, who travels constantly to far-flung countries on business, is so distant his sudden death barely causes a ripple. Their mother calls him "the father," which Izzy assumes was "to give him extra substance ... We saw him so little." The kids refer to him with the definite article, too.
About that definite article: It's a rare instance in which we hear Bordas' native French — le père — behind her smooth English. How to Behave in a Crowd is Bordas' third novel, but it's her first written in English, after she moved to Chicago five years ago and married an American writer. Although nominally set in France, the culture depicted is for the most part vague — no baccalaureates or baguettes, and neither A's and B's nor 20- point grading scales. (A butcher shop is one of the few Gallic details.)
With three published novels by age 30, Bordas is clearly no stranger to precocity. Her new novel's tight family of book-smart, emotionally-clueless eccentrics evoke both the Royal Tenenbaums and Salinger's Glass family. This is a book about togetherness and alienation. The Mazals are a self-sufficient lot whose idea of fun involves periodic "condescension fests" at the expense of suitors who occasionally try to penetrate their barricades — like the glaringly inappropriate date Izzy arranges online for their widowed mother. "Sometimes I feel like I brought up a batch of little misanthropes," she complains. "You're all so intolerant. You only look up from your books to criticize the rest of the world."
Again, Izzy is different. As he navigates the shoals of adolescence in the two years following "the father's" death, he reaches out in multiple ways, forging a genuine friendship with a smart, suicidally bleak girl at school and seeking an unlikely mentor in his disgruntled German teacher. Repeated, ridiculous attempts at running away — in search of adventure and notice — provide an amusing leitmotif. "I hadn't thought about how crossing the Alps on a bicycle might be a challenge," he writes a mile into an aborted attempt to reach Italy. Risible interviews with his sister Simone deliver another clever throughline: Just 18 months older than Izzy but already finishing high school, she is so convinced she's going to be famous that she has him gathering material on her formative years for an eventual biography.
Izzy is a wonderful narrator, keenly observant, but also inherently caring and inadvertently astute, ironic, touching, or flat-out hilarious. On one of his escapades, he surprises his oldest sister in bed with an older man in her Paris garret. He reports, deadpan: "He said I had to be Berenice's brother, with these cheekbones. 'And you must be her PhD adviser,' I said." Is Izzy being snarky? Nope, he's just hit a nerve, unintentionally. He explains, "I thought it would be polite to at least try to place him, but he stiffened. 'Berenice is not a student anymore,' he said."
If you're wondering about the odd title, it says little about the book, while the abstruse cover design — perhaps an allusion to the family's inability to connect the dots — omits even the author's name. Bordas keeps things mostly light, though the novel is underpinned by serious concerns about balancing critical thought with feeling, and it earns the moving scenes it builds to. When, after learning about Brecht's theatrical Verfremdungseffekt — alienation or distancing effect — Izzy questions why you can't have art that engages both intellectually and emotionally, we know where Bordas stands on the issue. How to Behave in a Crowd is her smart, charming answer.