Review of Tita by Marie Houzelle

Posted by in books

So, what do we have?

We have a chic French roman about a precocious little girl named Tita/Lakme/Euphémie and a few months spent with her in a small village near the Pyrenées. It could be called a fable, if there was a moral at the end. It could be called a coming-of-age story, if there was any character development on the part of Tita. It could be called a story, if it was more than just a series of vignettes about growing up in the south of France in the 1950s.

The good: I may not be Charlie, but I'm pretty sure I am Tita. Or I was. Not that I was reading Proust at seven (I barely got through one book of Proust at thirty-three), but I was about as proto-nihilism as she was when I was about seven too:

I'm not sure I have a heart. There is no "deep down" in me. I wonder if I even exist.

Tita just wants to read and learn and be left alone by meddling teachers. I was that kid. I love Tita. I loved every little thing about her. I love how she looks up phrases in the grammar dictionary to correct her teacher (which is a good review of French grammar for me). I love how she sneaks grown-up books away and reads them secretly (as I did with Stephen King and John Irving novels). I love how she writes plays and stories on the typewriter in her father's office (like I did, although it was my mother's typewriter and I wrote in her closet). I love her little bons mots sprinkled throughout the text. In short, j'adore Tita. Her little adventures and misadventures and thoughts and schemes. Everything Tita. Je t'adore.

The bad: But nothing happens. Nothing happens and then the book ends. The last forty pages are a glossary of French terms and an interview with Houzelle. I was left with a "Well, that's sudden" feeling that still hasn't gone away by the next morning. Okay, so we build up this character, her back story, some proto-conflict (yes, I'm using proto again. It's the prefix I'm stuck on today) regarding her parents' financial situation and the fallout from the school choice, and then final stop end, here's some French (which after many years of French immersion, I didn't need anyway). I could compile a list as long as the book with unresolved issues:

  1. Why have the father be divorced once and with children from the first marriage when they play so little a role in the story, especially the brothers Etienne and Maxime?
  2. Tita has three names, her birth name Lakme, her baptismal name Euphémie, and what everyone calls her, Tita. Was that really necessary?
  3. The timeline with Tita's birth and her father's divorce and her parents' marriage is never one hundred percent resolved. Or that issue with what Tita's last name was when she was born.
  4. Her father's business is failing. Maybe that should be addressed?
  5. There seems to be a class difference between Tita's mother and Tita's father. Not a huge one, but it's never really developed.

I'll stop, but I could keep going. Why put such a clever character into a muddle of a story? Tita, I love you, jump free of my kobo and put yourself in a story where you will thrive.

Also, every time I read books about French parenting, I'm always struck by how utilitarian and cold it is. It seems like there are rules for everything and the parents seem so haughty. Sometimes I think all Tita needed was a hug. I'd give her a hug if I were her mother.

I was going to comment on the translation, and even wrote little notes about the translation in my kobo, only to get to the end and realize that the book was written in English originally. So oops on my part. It's a bit random whether French used in the text is immediately translated or not. Sometimes it is, other times non-French speakers have to look it up in the Appendix. I like consistency. I would have rather an all-or-nothing in terms of translated words in the text.

If it weren't for Tita, I think I would have despised this book. But my love for Tita knows no bounds. Oh Tita. I could feel the Mediterranean sun on my cheeks as I read about you. It warmed me to the very core.

Tita by Marie Houzelle went on sale September 15, 2014.

I received a copy free in a librarything giveway in exchange for an honest review.