Wild Thing

Rat BY Fernanda Eberstadt. Knopf. Hardcover, 304 pages. $25.

The cover of Rat

Fernanda Eberstadt grew up on Park Avenue, in a wealthy bohemian family that threw parties attended by the likes of Jackie Kennedy. Recalling her childhood home, she wrote in the New York Observer, “There was a gold Andy Warhol Marilyn in the living room and an alabaster statue of a panther from a Greek temple.” She published her first book at twenty-five, and her novels chronicled a Manhattan that counterposed intelligence and money in a most delicious way. Eberstadt specialized in witty, sharply observed class collisions, such as the love affair in The Furies (2003) between uptown highflier Gwen and Lower East Side eccentric Gideon (leader of the Pants on Fire puppet troupe) or the entanglement between Minimalist-art collector Dolly and Basquiat-esque artist Isaac in When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth (1997).

But in the late ’90s, Eberstadt left New York and moved to Perpignan, a French city near the Spanish border. There she wrote Little Money Street (2006), a fascinating account of the local Gypsy clans she befriended. Eberstadt found in Perpignan “an older, shabbier, weirder Europe of my childhood dreams, a Europe which I imagined to have been effaced by decades of postwar prosperity.” This shabby, weird Europe—a coastal town in southern France awash in ethnic violence and populated by Gypsies, immigrants, and the French equivalent of white trash—is the backdrop for her fifth novel, Rat, a strange and sometimes enchanting coming-of-age tale.

Eberstadt’s fascination with people who live on the fringes, whether starving artists or Romany musicians, finds expression in the character of Celia (nicknamed Rat), a girl with so much freedom even local Gypsy children are jealous. No adults hover over her in the playground to ward off would-be molesters; no parents harass her to clean her room or turn off the TV. Rat is practically a modern-day fantasy of an autonomous child. Not that she has much choice in the matter. Her independence has been thrust on her by her single mother, Vanessa, a free spirit who makes her living as a brocanteuse: gleaning, foraging, and then selling her treasures from a market stall.

Despite the lax supervision, mother and daughter are emotionally and physically close, stuck together in the tiny lair of their apartment (once the wine cellar of a farmhouse). But as Rat heads toward adolescence, two male intruders disrupt this dyad: First, Vanessa takes in Morgan, the young son of a neighbor dying of HIV, and then she allows a malevolent loser boyfriend to move in. Rat begins to dream of running away to her father, Gillem McKane—a man she’s never met. The wild-child son of a legendary British model, Gillem made a summer pit stop in a provincial French town years ago, knocked up a teenage Vanessa, and never spoke to her again.

In Little Money Street, Eberstadt discovers that Gypsy life is far more constrained and hierarchical than we imagine; likewise, Rat’s freedom is not what it appears. She and her friends roam the jagged landscape and make play spaces out of industrial ruins, such as a cavernous old dynamite factory (“room enough for a whole village of miscreants each to pursue undisturbed his contraband vocation”) and a deserted World War II bunker atop a cliff. But hanging over them is the threat of violence (the bunker was cemented shut after a girl was raped there), as well as the risk of being taken from their homes: “Every kid who isn’t actually stuck to some family unit with Super Glue can in theory be taken into Care.”

Rat’s life is utterly precarious, and Eberstadt zooms in on the girl’s growing awareness of her situation as she begins to question the wisdom of Vanessa’s choices. In a lovely description of mother-daughter friction, Eberstadt writes: “Rat was still jealous of her mother’s attentions, still needed Vanessa’s love, but in a warier, more combative sort of way: love not as baby talk and butterfly kisses and sleepy limbs entwined, but as a hard back-board against which to slam your grievances. Wide-awake love, challenging, that would answer all her whys.” That need for whys leads her on a quest across France to find her father: a road trip that veers between plucky adventures and harrowing—for Rat, unprecedented—perils.

Both dreamier and starker than her previous novels, Rat is Eberstadt’s ambitious attempt to burrow into the skin of someone who scarcely knows herself. A child’s point of view is such a skewed perspective that it can create huge blind spots for novelists. Vanessa hangs over the narrative like a ghost, an unformed and sometimes unpleasant character glimpsed only in her daughter’s sidelong glances. And Rat’s adoptive brother, Morgan, who becomes her sidekick, barely gets a word in edgewise. When we meet him, he’s practically mute; as soon as he starts to talk, Rat “discovers that his imagination is dark, fearsome, vindictive, that he’s never forgotten a mean look anyone gave him, that for him the world is full of traps, of enemies waiting to humiliate him, cheat him of what’s his.” In fact, he gets up to some disturbing high jinks, but Eberstadt refrains from delving into his personality, treating him instead as an accessory, a showcase for Rat’s motherly affection and fierce will to survive.

Rat feels like an eerie, angular fairy tale, though it’s hard to say which is the stronger fantasy for American readers: the rich, faraway dad who holds the promise of a comfortable life or the wild, ramshackle existence that Rat flees. Indeed, Eberstadt has conjured an intense romance for readers in a culture whose children almost never have a chance to hitchhike through the countryside, create imaginary universes out of ruins, or get lost in the woods, even for a moment.

Joy Press, the former culture editor of Salon and the Village Voice, is a writer in New York.