I don’t know what to think of this book. It started out so strong, and I immediately loved it so much, and then it was as if a switch had went off: my fondness for it just completely evaporated. It felt like what had initially been a great book in the making had, at a certain point, taken a wrong turn and left its strengths far behind.
What initially struck me about this book—and what instantly drew me to it—was Bordas’s ability to write observations. Keen, distinctive character observations can do so much for a novel. They let you see how characters sift through their realities, reveal what those characters consider worthy of sifting in the first place. And if done well, character observations are often what stay with me after I’ve finished a book. (Sally Rooney’s novels in particular come to mind as examples of masterful character observations.)
Here are some examples from Bordas:
“I loved my family, I believe. Even though I’d known no other and couldn’t really tell, I thought they were all right, decent people. But oblivious. They got lost in their thoughts. They had no sense of the other—of anyone outside our family, sometimes even me.”
“My parents didn’t look very much in love to me, and I thought it was my fault. I guess it’s what happens when you’re the only one to notice a thing: you feel responsible for it.”
“[Leonard] had said…that Flaubert and Bourdieu were the two smartest men who had ever lived. I was four when Leonard made that speech, and the reason I remember it is because I hadn’t really been aware that anyone existed outside of our family before that, and hearing that there not only were other names than ours (Flaubert, Bourdieu) but that they belonged to smarter people than my parents, that no one around the table—not even my parents—objected to it, made me panic and I started crying.”
“Unlike the kids I went to school with, the adults in the church looked friendly, and sad, and all in all it was a good experience. I’d always thought I was the saddest one in my class (except for Denise Galet), and to see that sadness might become a normal trait with age left me feeling hopeful.”
What’s remarkable about these moments, for me, is that they’re at once ordinary and monumental. In her novel, Bordas continually dips in and out of these two; her characters live out the mundane, only for it to be subsumed by the existential; they ponder the existential, only for it to deflate into the mundane. Bordas carries this specific tone throughout her novel: this sense that characters are simultaneously in and out of their lives, so absorbed in their routines that they can see nothing else, or else so far outside those routines that they can think of nothing but the absurdity of their lives outside them.
All of this is to say, How to Behave in a Crowd is what you would consider a “quiet novel.” Things of consequence to the plot do happen, but that’s not really the point. Rather, it’s more about how characters navigate—or don’t navigate—their way around those things.
Despite all of this, though, Bordas’s novel doesn’t work—at least not for me. Yes, her characters’ observations are keen, but keen character observations do not a great novel make. Where How to Behave in a Crowd falls short, I think, is in its lack of cohesion. There is no dynamic quality to this narrative; characters are written into one scene then another with no sense of development. Effectively, the novel ends up feeling like a series of one-note, albeit well-written, tableaus: independently, they are good enough, but in a genre that needs to have some semblance of an interconnected narrative, these tableaus just don’t cut it.
I know I said Bordas’s writing is strong—and it is—but it is also inconsistent frequently enough to notice. At times her observations are written with clarity and authenticity, and at other times they are so implausible and irritating in ways that you just cannot overlook.
1) Things of the implausible variety – Bordas’s characters are far too mature for their age. I tried suspending my disbelief; certainly there are plenty of precocious kids and teens out there. But Bordas was really straining the limits of believability here.
2) Things of the irritating variety – Lines like these: “‘I tried wearing some [red nail polish] for the defense . . . It looked like I’d scratched my way out of a rape attempt.” I’m sorry—what the fuck ? Sometimes I read lines like these and I cannot understand for the life of me how an author could think ‘yeah, it’s a good decision to keep that line in my novel.’
Or else lines like these: “‘I don’t know about that Denise chick,’ she said, ‘but Sara Catalano is a dumb bitch, Dory. The last one in a long line of dumb bitches.'” Are we gonna address that? No? Ok.
On a final note, Bordas does not make it easy for you to sympathize with her characters. I’m tempted to say these characters were “hard to love,” but honestly a bigger part of me just thinks that they were straight-up assholes. I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, I really did, but they were so unrelentingly unpleasant and judgmental that when they did have vulnerable moments—which were very few and far between, by the way—those moments did nothing to temper their overwhelming shittiness.
How to Behave in a Crowd had the parts of a good book, but it failed to put those parts together into the shape of a good book. And I think that’s why I felt so ambivalently about it. It’s a novel that was well-written and -observed, but also one whose characters were flimsy, pretentious, implausible. That is to say, it’s a novel that could’ve worked, but ultimately didn’t.