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How to Behave in a Crowd


How to Behave in a Crowd

There are probably going to be comparisons made between the large, unconventional, somewhat dysfunctional family at the center of HOW TO BEHAVE IN A CROWD and the titular Tenenbaums from Wes Anderson’s film. But the family that sprang to my mind as I read Camille Bordas’ novel --- her first to be written in English rather than her native French --- were the Bagthorpes, the large, bickering, eccentric clan that starred in nearly a dozen books for young people by British author Helen Cresswell. Like the Bagthorpes, the Mazals are individuals of ambition, passion and indifference --- if not outright disdain --- for the opinions of others outside their family.

Dory (short for Isidore) is the youngest son in the family. Eleven when the novel opens, he is the only one of his five older siblings --- two boys and three girls --- who has not skipped at least one grade. His two oldest sisters are both about to defend their dissertations (and possibly continue for second doctorates afterwards); one brother is a brilliant music composer, and the other is writing his own sociological dissertation. Even the sister closest to Dory in age has set her sights on the most competitive school in Europe --- and has enlisted him to be her personal biographer.

"At the very least, Dory becomes the moral heart of his family, something they desperately desire even if they might not recognize or articulate that need."

Dory, on the other hand, is far more interested in studying people than in academic pursuits. He’s a perfectly capable student, but finds himself longing for human relationships, pursuing friendships and looking for the best in people, in a way that the rest of his family never would. Dory is nearly overflowing with empathy; he recalls an incident a couple of years earlier in which he was mocked for giving all of his pocket money to a charity that brings disadvantaged children to the seashore for the first time. After his father --- a quite literal nonentity --- passes away without any fanfare in the novel’s first third, Dory uses an online dating service to find a new companion for his mom. But in a hilariously cringeworthy scene, Dory’s siblings completely eviscerate the would-be suitor, even as Dory hopes that the man will at least not completely embarrass himself.

As in his dispassionate description of his father’s death --- which is interjected so unsentimentally that less careful readers might miss it altogether --- Dory is a practical, matter-of-fact narrator who recounts everything in his life, from losing his virginity at an absurdly young age to learning of his sister’s pregnancy to discovering a tragic death, in the same neutral tone. But his longing for human connection --- and his continual bafflement at his siblings’ single-minded pursuit of achievement over those connections --- hint at what’s really going on between the lines.

There are a lot of philosophical discussions that take place between Dory and his brothers and sisters. In one, his sister characterizes maturation as a process of falling through a funnel, beginning life with a whole sea of possibilities and gradually narrowing down to just one’s area of specialization. One wonders if Dory, whose eyes remain wide open to the people around him, might in the end have more possibilities than his gifted but limited siblings. At the very least, Dory becomes the moral heart of his family, something they desperately desire even if they might not recognize or articulate that need.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 18, 2017

How to Behave in a Crowd
by Camille Bordas

  • Publication Date: August 21, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Tim Duggan Books
  • ISBN-10: 0451497554
  • ISBN-13: 9780451497550