Author: Delphine de Vigan
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Publication Date: 8/3/10
Blurb(GR): The international award-winning story of two girls from different backgrounds, united in friendship
Parisian teenager Lou has an IQ of 160, OCD tendencies, and a mother who has suffered from depression for years. But Lou is about to change her life—and that of her parents—all because of a school project about homeless teens. While doing research, Lou meets No, a teenage girl living on the streets. As their friendship grows, Lou bravely asks her parents if No can live with them, and is astonished when they agree. No’s presence forces Lou’s family to come to terms with a secret tragedy. But can this shaky, newfound family continue to live together when No’s own past comes back to haunt her?
Winner of the prestigious Booksellers’ Prize in France, No and Me is a timely and thought-provoking novel about homelessness that has far-reaching appeal.
One of my most vivid memories from childhood is the first time I realized that homelessness is a regularly occurring thing. I think I was about five or six, and as my parents and I were climbing into our old car, a man came up and asked my father for some spare change so he could get something to eat. My father gave him some coins but I was so shocked and devastated. It didn’t seem like enough. Surely this man needed immediate help! When we got home, I went to the plastic jar where I’d been storing up loose change for months, hauled it out, and demanded that we go back and find that man so I could give it to him. In my child’s mind, that jar was a vast fortune, capable of solving the whole situation. My mom brushed it off and demurred, but I didn’t understand. There was a man out there who didn’t have enough to eat and obviously that was an emergency that needed to be dealt with. I felt anxiety for that man for months afterward, wondering where he was and what happened to him.
In later years, when I didn’t have enough to eat, I learned that poverty is something that most people don’t want to hear about or acknowledge unless they’re living it. I learned that it should be a source of shame for those who experience it first-hand. I learned to hide it and pretend as much as I could that it wasn’t happening. Now, when I’m driving in my closed up, air-conditioned car I often pass by people on the street, holding up signs asking for help. And maybe I feel a stab, but I don’t stop. And I try not to think about them after I’ve passed.
This book so artfully encompasses both of those points of view: the child’s and the adult’s. Lou, the thirteen year old narrator, is a child prodigy wise beyond her years in some ways but still very immature in others. When she begins interviewing eighteen year old No, homeless and abandoned by everyone she ever counted on, she wants to save her. She’s old enough to know that saving No is not something that she should wish for or attempt, but she’s young enough to try to do it anyway. She still has a bit of that belief left – that a jar of coins or a bath or a home or unconditional acceptance could solve everything.
I think that what hits me the hardest about this story isn’t so much that Lou would try to save No, would believe that she could save No, but that No so obviously wants to be saved. Despite knowing deep down that no amount of Lou’s help will save her, No wants it to be true. Not just for herself, but for Lou too – it’s as if she wants to give Lou the gift of her rescuing. And despite my years and years accrual of denial and apathy, these girls got to me too. Even though I knew that nothing in this world is ever solved that easily, I desperately wanted it to happen. As the story progressed and the slow but inevitable intrusion of reality set in, the sense of doom I felt really turned this quiet little book into something substantial and powerful for me.
No and Me has the kind of narration that I love best: a deeply personal voice with a narrow focus that feels all-consuming. Lou is the very real, flawed, sympathetic person who gets to tell this story, but No is always very much there. She may be in the background but her actions – both on and off-stage – are a huge presence in the novel. If you’ve ever been a square peg/over-thinker/misfit (as I believe many of us readers are) then I think you’ll probably really relate to Lou:
“I’m not too keen on talking. I always have the feeling that the words are getting away from me, escaping and scattering. It’s not to do with vocabulary or meanings, because I know quite a lot of words, but when I come out with them they get confused and scattered. That’s why I avoid stories and speeches and just stick to answering the questions I’m asked. All the extra words, the overflow, I keep to myself, the words that I silently multiply to get close to the truth.”
No’s story hit me the hardest, but I loved Lou’s as well. She’s a very closed-off and fearful person and her relationship with No (and with sweetie/layabout classmate Lucas) leads her to a very grey but fulfilling ending, which I needed after No punched me in the gut.
Delphine de Vigan’s writing is clean and subtle but powerful and I am completely impressed by the translation. I’ve read a few translated novels this year and this one really stands out. Every word just feels right. That being said, this book also feels absolutely Not American which I LOVED. I hate it when translated books are stripped of everything uniquely foreign during translation – what’s the point? I read French and German and English and Australian and etc. books because I WANT to experience something non-American.
This book reminds me quite a lot of Antonia Michaelis’ The Storyteller, but it’s much less brutal and much more quirky and sad. Apparently there’s also a film! But it’s only available overseas. Boo.
Perfect Musical Pairing
Brand New – Sowing Season
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But, while I was listening to this song (over and over, naturally) I started thinking about how much I love songs in general that have delayed and sudden crescendos (and books too...kinda like this one, for example). And that made me think of this song:
Jimmy Eat World – Invented
Which I think is my song for Lou and Lucas and that ending which was just perfect.