Friday, May 27, 2016

Book 38: There's something really neat about just stumbling across a book. Especially when it's a book that you'll want to remember forever.

A while back -- well years ago, fine -- I wrote a post on another blog about how schools were continuing to have people read the same boring books year after year, and how there wasn't really any need to just keep reading those books. I stand by that opinion, still: I've read a fair number of 'classic' books and found some of them boring and hard to understand (Ulysses, Moby-Dick), and others just uninspired and annoying.

The Catcher In The Rye was in that latter category; I read it years ago and to this day can't understand why it's such a big deal. I didn't think it was particularly well-written, and the themes of teenage angst and alienation, as well as the tension between wanting to grow up and not understanding the world of grown-ups, are common themes that appear in many novels. I don't know why Holden Caulfield is still so celebrated, let alone why a mediocre book lands so far up on most people's lists.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night outdoes Catcher in every respect, capturing a glimpse of a world through the eyes of a girl who, because she is nothing like anyone, serves as a stand-in for everyone.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is narrated by and stars Nouschka Tremblay, a twin child of Etienne Tremblay, who we're told was a famous folk singer-ish celebrity in the 60s and 70s in Quebec, where the story takes place. Nouschka and her brother Nicolas are Etienne's only children, born to a 14-year old girl Etienne got pregnant on a tour (an act which landed Etienne in jail for a while but which seems not to have dimmed his popularity.)  The twins were given to Etienne's father to raise by the mother, and they have grown up on what is essentially the Montreal version of Skid Row.

Nouschka describes a life of panhandling, minor thievery, scams, and barely-scraping by from jobs. At the outset of the story Nouschka goes to enroll in night school so she can finish her high school education, and gets talked into joining a beauty pageant that lands her in a parade; she is picked not just because she's beautiful but because she and Nicolas are frequent tabloid fodder for their lifestyles, as is Etienne, who drifts in and out of the picture as a documentary is filmed about him.

From that beginning the story unfolds in a sprawling kaleidoscope of Quebec's secession movement, marriages, crimes, pregnancies, and discoveries.  Nouschka dates a rich Englishman named Adam but breaks up with him when she finds out that Adam's nanny, when he was young, was Nouschka's mother, who she's never met. She only met Adam because Nicolas found out about the connection and befriended him, without telling Nouschka why. When Nouschka breaks up with Adam, she quickly marries Raphael, the boy across the street who himself was going to be a famous figure skater until something happened that made him quit; now he's a possibly-schizophrenic small time criminal who goes from dog-breeding schemes to haphazard drug-dealing for motorcycle gangs.

The real charm of the book isn't just the amazing characters, who are heartbreaking and fascinating at the same time (Nouschka's grandfather, LouLou, is particularly sad in one scene where he has forgotten the twins are now 20 and talks to them as though they're babies), but the way Nouschka sees everything and relates it; the book is full of similes: everything, practically, that Nouschka looks at is compared to something else, usually something unusual. Her running commentary makes the slum where they live, and the lives they lead, seem both terribly sad and somehow magical at the same time -- but magical in a way that you know isn't going to end well.

Unlike Catcher, Saturday Night pulled me along through the story, as Nouschka and Nicolas try to cope with their lives and their growing up, resenting the way their lives pull them away from each other, resenting the advantages other people have had (at one point, Nouschka gets Adam to tell her one of the stories her mother told Adam when she was a nanny; the story was about two children named, of course, Nouschka and Nicolas), and coping with a life where they have been famous since they were babies, leaving people thinking they know the twins while having no idea what they're relly like.

The strangeness of their lives somehow makes the emotions seem universal. The twins' lives have absolutely zero in common with my own, either now or growing up, but I could feel a connection with how I felt, as a middle-class kid in the suburbs heading out on his own, as a young adult and then an older adult trying to forge a way in the world.  The idea that there is some sort of mysterious force that decrees some people will have it easy while others will struggle, the feeling that nobody really knows us, they just think they do because of our public personae, the small victories that matter only to us, and the larger victories that we want the entire world to celebrate: those all resonated with me and made me feel like someone had found a really perfect way of describing how I think and feel lots of the time, while also being an extremely compelling story.

What makes it really kind of interesting to me is the fact that I found this book completely by accident. It was published nearly 2 years ago, and I'd never heard of the author or the book at all. I just stumbled across it this way: When we were at the Verona library a few weeks ago, Mr F wanted to go get a drink of water. We were wandering through the fiction section trying to find a bubbler, and he stopped to look out a window at the rain.  I let him sit there for a bit and idly looked at the books on the shelf opposite me. I saw the spine of the book, and liked the title The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, so I picked it up and read the cover description, then checked it out and read it.

This was the second of the two books I took out that day; the other was The Mark And The Void, and in each case I don't know that I'd ever have otherwise come across the books. That's part of the reason why I like libraries, and why I think it's good that there are still some bookstores around.  There's an unexpected joy in happening onto a book that is outside of your usual genre, but which when you read it opens up whole new vistas of stories.  (Similarly, I found Billy Lynn, Hansel & Gretel, Of Dice And Men, and some others on this list just by wandering around libraries with the boys. I recommend it, if you like to read: libraries are a cost-free guilt-free way of discovering books by taking a chance on something just because it had a neat cover or cool title.)

And I'm glad I found this one. While the world is cramming Holden Caulfield down kids' throats, here is a book that sees Holden's angst and confusion and raises it with ice skaters, lions, political movements, bank robberies, New Year's Eve parties, and jars full of wishes (really! and it makes sense!), jumbling it all together into a jagged, beautiful portrait of a life that nobody would want, but which everybody kind of has anyway.

I loved this book. It's one I might put on my list to read again in a few years; it's the kind of book that you want to let soak in, that you read through half trying to find out what happens and half just to feel the story flowing over you.

It's a keeper.  And the ending, as endings rarely are, is perfect.

PS: When I went to re-post this interview, I saw that the book had only 41 reviews on Amazon, but nearly 400 on Goodreads. I thought hmmm maybe it was better known than I thought but then I checked and Catcher has nearly 40,000 reviews. *sigh*.

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