Camille Bordas debuted her first English novel in August 2017. The author, already well-known for her French novels, “Les Treize Desserts” and “Partie Commune,” nevertheless made big waves with her newest book, “How to Behave in a Crowd.”
The novel focuses on the coming-of-age story of the protagonist, Isidore Mazal, the youngest of his six siblings, and his interactions with his family and the larger world as he grows up in a small town in France.
A large portion of the story takes place after the untimely and shocking death of Mazal’s father. Mazal, the most observant and empathetic of his family, is at the same time going through his own adolescent transformation and takes on the role of the emotional care-giver of his family. Unlike his siblings, all of whom are anti-social, academic geniuses, Mazal begins to find his place in the world as someone who notices, remembers and cares for the people around him, making him a more compelling narrator than any of his siblings could have been.
All of Mazal’s older siblings are initially off-putting, both within the novel and to the reader. They know they are smarter and “better” than those around them, and they don’t care to hide it. All of them care more about academics and knowledge than relationships, and the only joy they get out of interacting with people outside their family is from mocking the outsider afterwards.
As the novel progresses, however, the depth of personality of the Mazal family is slowly revealed, and by the end, I challenge you not to find some aspect in each character than you also see in yourself. This is surprising, because one thing Bordas does not believe is that a reader must relate to the characters about which they read.
In an interview with Electric Literature, Bordas said, “I don’t get the need to identify with a character to be involved in a book or in a movie. As a reader, I need to care for, or hate, or be entertained by a character … but identification…I’m not even sure I know what that means, or why I would want that.”
When it comes to “How to Behave in a Crowd,” I guarantee you will find yourself caring for, hating and being entertained by every character Mazal meets, from the 111 year old neighbor who’s outlived everyone she knows, to the suicidal and depressed best friend Mazal makes, to Mazal’s German teacher, who loves the language but never wanted to teach, and even “the father,” who is so distant from his children that they always refer to him as “the” and never “our,” but who is still deeply felt when he is gone.
“How to Behave in a Crowd” is better categorized as a character study than a plot-driven novel, and yet the forward momentum keeps up the entire time, making it extremely difficult to put down before you’ve seen Mazal’s journey all the way through.
Even after it’s over, the characters linger in one’s mind, as Bordas has succeeded in making a cast so human and believable, it’s hard not to think that the Mazals and their neighbors exist out there somewhere, continuing along the journey that Bordas has started.