Fifteen-year-old girls make powerful protagonists. Unaware of their own strength, they teeter on the edge of the victim abyss. They fly from the nest into an increasingly dangerous world. Rat, the plucky heroine of Fernanda Eberstadt's new novel, is no different. Nor was the author, one suspects, at 15, when her favorite fictional character was Scout, the girl with a thousand questions, the young vigilante at the heart of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
Eberstadt’s mossy voice contains several languages—a little New York, a little laid-back Brit, and some mouthy street French. She could, at any age, have subbed in as one of Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Duckworth’s daughters—Vanessa Bell for the painterly sensibility, Virginia Woolf for the quick wit and layered literary aspect. One of the great beauties of her generation (she turns 50 in November) of Manhattan wunderkinds, which include Bret Easton Ellis, A.M. Holmes, Rick Moody, Jay McInerney, and others, Eberstadt has the dewy, round eyes that Julia Cameron loved to photograph and the otherwordly empathic intellect of both women—one eye on the battlefield and one on the household books. “ To Kill a Mockingbird is absolutely my favorite American novel,” Eberstadt says. “It’s not just a kid’s book. Pass the damn ham,” she says in Scout’s tough girl Southern dialect.
“It’s more hip to be a writer in America,” she says. “Writing fiction seems to have a new prestige. You can tell because all these young men are doing it.”
“I could have stayed in New York,” says Fernanda Eberstadt, rewriting her own story. “But my life there is so sheltered, my acquaintance more limited. I see people who went to the same schools and grew up in the same bubble.” Eberstadt went to Brearley, worked at Andy Warhol’s Factory when she was 16 and took herself off to London, where she studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, when she was 18. For the last 12 years, she has lived in France.
There is only the faintest trace of nostalgia for her hometown, and little for American culture. She has written about the Park Avenue she grew up on in the '70s: “Too mineral, too grey, too mausoleum-like.” She has written about her illustrious family—the poet Ogden Nash was her maternal grandfather, her mother was the writer Isabel Eberstadt, her father, Frederick Eberstadt, a well-known psychotherapist and photographer—and about her parents’ wild parties. Mortified by her family’s wealth, she used to say that she lived between Lexington and Madison. “When I was a little kid we’d drive through Spanish Harlem and I’d stare at the kids playing on the street; sitting on stoops, playing in the spray of opened fire hydrants and I was so jealous. I felt confined.”
Eberstadt and her husband, British journalist Alastair Bruton, recently moved back to London with their two children, Maud, 15 and Theodore, 12. “London,” she says, “is even worse for sheltered bubbles.” They met in Istanbul, where Fernanda was on assignment for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. They married in 1993. “We tried living in New York and London but found we got along far better in some third place. I wanted to live outside of the U.S. After our son was born in 1998 we traveled around France for 16 weeks and picked this small town near Perpignan in the French Pyrenees. We found a place on a vineyard where the kids could run around barefoot and play in puddles. My husband was writing a book about religious faith and the area was going through a religious revival—you’d see these Pentecostal processions on religious holidays. France was such a liberation, an eye-opener. It was what I’d always wanted.”
In the Pyrenees, Eberstadt got to know what she calls the other Europe—not Peter Mayle’s south of France, but a world of gypsies and poor white French and Arab families. The vineyard was run by a charismatic Christian who “believed in giving people a second chance—single mothers on welfare, the crazy lady with 47 cats, and the ex drug addicts. Some of her children’s friends’ parents had AIDS and struggled with alcoholism. Many people worked seasonal jobs. There were also the middle-class types who “came down from the north and lived cheap. They had a different set of values—antithetical to the American idea of getting ahead—and didn’t consider it a failure to live day to day.”
It was here that Eberstadt wrote her book on gypsies: Little Money Street—In Search of Gypsies and Their Music in the South of France. It met with some outrage in Perpignan; the mayor sued Eberstadt and tried, unsuccessfully, to have publication canceled. Eberstadt revealed too much about the many ways that gypsies are discriminated against. “They just aren’t used to that kind of journalism in France.”
Her first book, the novel Low Tide, was published in 1985, when Eberstadt was 25. Isaac and His Devils came out in 1991; When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of Earth, set in the 1980s New York art world, appeared in 1997. Eberstadt’s writing was denser, more European than the novels of her cohorts. Her characters were even less enamored of the American dream than Moody’s or Holmes’, and certainly less mesmerized, blinded, and bitten by America’s 1980s glamour than Ellis’ or McInerney’s.
Eberstadt’s new novel is also set in Perpignan and peopled with a cast of characters similar to those in Little Money Street. Rat is tough, a 15-year-old “alley cat” version of her beautiful mother, Vanessa. Vanessa is a hippie ( babacool in French, says Eberstadt); Rat has never met her father, a British painter living in London. When Vanessa’s best friend Souad dies of AIDS, Vanessa adopts her 9-year-old son, Morgan. Rat is angry at first, then protective. When Vanessa’s sleazy boyfriend creeps into Morgan’s bed one night and Vanessa refuses to believe Rat, the two children run away. Rat’s idea is to somehow make it over the border and find her father in London, which she does.
In the background of her world are the 2005 riots in France, the rise of skinheads, the security craze—her school has metal detectors and drug tests. In London, bombs explode in the Tube. Children learn racial profiling from otherwise well-meaning parents. Eberstadt is all too aware of “all the haunting things that can be done in the name of security. I’ve got two children with dual citizenship (British and French). I’ve been married 17 years but I am not allowed in Britain if my husband isn’t with me. Here in Europe we live with the blowback from the way the U.S. has been treating other cultures since 9/11.”
Rat was the first book of Eberstadt’s set entirely in Europe. “The characters in real life would be speaking French. I had to literally translate it, in my mind, from French back into American. I heard it in my head in French.”
With a head full of Old Masters, Flemish painters, and the Old Testament, Eberstadt writes in the living room of their tiny London apartment (Alastair writes in the kitchen, their son sleeps on a shelf). She keeps bankers’ hours until her kids come home from school. “It’s more hip to be a writer in America,” she says. “Writing fiction seems to have a new prestige. You can tell because all these young men are doing it. You know how they say that when women enter a profession everyone’s about to be less well paid? In Europe it’s not despised but it is irrelevant. I don’t know any writers who are getting paid what they used to get paid. The London literary scene is still incredibly snide and personal. It’s a very destructive literary culture."
But they do turn a pretty phrase now and then.
You can tell the writer is already feeling a little cramped in England. She’s got some gypsy music in her head. It might be time to be moving on.
Susan Salter Reynolds is a writer and book critic. She is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times.