It started out as a school assignment. Lou, who’s the youngest in her class and who hates presentations, picked as her social economics class project exploring why young women become homeless. She decided to do some interviews, and as a result met No: 18 years old, and homeless for the past three years.
Over the course of the assignment, Lou develops a bond with No, and — mostly because of some difficulties in her own home life with her parents — takes No under her wing. She wants to help No, to make her life better, and so she invites No (with her amazingly trusting parents’ permission) to live with them. And for a while it really is better.
One of the things I liked best about this book was that it was unflinchingly honest. Without giving anything away: there isn’t a happy ending. No doesn’t “reform” and suddenly become a productive member of society. The book addresses the issue of homelessness (as well as the issues of rape, neglect, death and French welfare) without being maudlin, but also without talking down to the characters or the reader. It’s very matter-of-fact: these things happen. Sometimes we can help. Sometimes that help isn’t wanted. Sometimes it all doesn’t work out the way we want it to. But don’t give up trying to help.
All that said, I’m not sure I quite connected with the book. While on an intellectual level, it was interesting and honest, none of the characters were terribly sympathetic. Lou is one of those precocious kids — uber-smart and quirky — and while it works in this context, especially since she’s an idealist who is eventually jaded (the “growing up” process inevitably involves disappointment of some sort, because one cannot grow without it, I suppose), it’s not exactly endearing. There are her parents: you feel sorry for them, but there’s not much else. There’s Lucas, Lou’s older friend (he’s been held back a couple of years, so they’re in the same class), and while he has the potential to be interesting, he’s never really given the chance. Then there’s No: wounded, yes, but also highly petulant, which made her unsympathetic. I wanted to feel sorry for her, and I did to a certain extent. But pity isn’t enough to make a character work.
And, like always happens when I read a book in translation, I had to wonder what I missed by reading it in English. I’m sure there were some subtleties, some peculiar French-isms, that may have made the book that much better for me, that I missed by not being a native French speaker.
It’s a good book, an interesting book, but not a breathtaking book.
Rated: High for language: there are a half-dozen F-bombs, which, while they fit into the character who said them, really didn’t add anything to the book.