The Bildungsroman – the story of a child venturing out from home, journeying towards adulthood, turning away from the familiar. Coming of age.
How did you come of age? Was it a moment? A year? An experience? Or a slow burn, in which you never noticed you had left the whimsy of childhood behind until you were too old and passionless to appreciate the energy and excitement of growing up?
In Fernanda Eberstadt’s Rat, the title character comes of age when she runs away from her mother’s home with her adopted brother, Morgan. I’m loathe to give spoilers around here, but I don’t think I’m revealing too much to tell you she leave to protect Morgan. One of the strongest parts of this book is this sibling relationship. Rat (nickname for Celia) rejects the child at first, then later comes to accept her attachment to him and responsibility for him as simply the way of things, much like her platonic relationship with a neighbor boy. This is just how things are in their lives in a little French seaside town. Tourists come and go, families are formed with little regard for stupid things like marriage or kinship, the ocean remains, and so it goes. Rat loves Morgan, they belong to each other. Eberstadt makes little fuss over it. Too much fuss over the formalities of family is, well, un-French.
Not that Rat isn’t fascinated with the trappings of conventional family. She’s pretty interested in her biological father, Gillem, even though he’s never met her. Perhaps it’s the contrast that intrigues her; she is, after all, the daughter of Vanessa, a junk-dealer unlikely to remember things like breakfast. Vanessa has little patience for crap like nuclear families.
It’s a book about relationships without being annoyingly obvious about being a book about relationships. Gillem, when we do find him, is marriedwithchild, but wonderfully angsty about his place in the modern, egalitarian world of educated upstanding citizens. “This is how we enshrine our modern trinity: wage-earning Mummy, chores-performing Daddy, high-achieving Child” (192), he thinks. Contrast that clean version of the family with ragged Rat and her dark-skinned brother, wandering their way towards England.
I wonder if only children who play on the rocks by the sea – children like Rat who indulge freely in their childhood – get to come of age. Maybe the rest of us are like Kate, Gillem’s competent and interesting wife, who somewhere along the line stopped being a vessel of passion and became a “bustling, bargain-hunting mum,” an adult “seeking refuge in the banal” (194).
Rat is a perfectly developed balance of innocent confidence and teenaged insecurity. Eberstadt invites the reader to grow up with her somewhat roguish character, and it’s a delightful opportunity for those of us who spend a bit too much time seeking refuge in the banal.