by Maude Favreau
Éditions Druide, 2013
Ten-year-old Valentine is no beauty: taller than all the boys in her class, she’s perpetually unfashionable and her front teeth make her look a bit like a rabbit. And while she laments that her enormous glasses are the icing on the cake, they somehow seem to lend her magical powers. Valentine—who adores her all-too-permissive mother more than anything in the world, is in love with François-Xavier Miron, and has christened her two cats “Clementine” and “Cream of Wheat”—can see with insight far beyond her years.
“Mom has the charcoal eyes of endangered species. The eyes of gazelles and rare birds, eyes with the depths of a black hole. Reflecting on her magic mountain gaze that would make gemstones weep, I think: my mom has all of this in her eyes?”
Maude Favreau’s debut novel is a story about a child, but it is not a children’s story; in the tradition of La vie devant soi, the author brings us a pre-coming-of-age story written through the voice of a young narrator. It’s a risky bet: the genre is somewhat saturated. But Favreau’s Valentine is endearingly earnest and honest, her narrative refreshingly free of both jaded scepticism and childish wonder. In different ways, Valentine is reminiscent of both Heather O’Neill’s Baby (Lullabies for Little Criminals) and Marie-Renée Lavoie’s Hélène (La petite et le vieux): she’s tough and scrappy, a bit underfed, and extraordinarily loyal to her loved ones.
Loyal, and also protective. Wise beyond her years (often the case with young narrators… ), Valentine must become her mother’s confidant and defender in a nearly overdone role reversal. Her mother has a habit of slipping in and out of bouts of deep depression—as Valentine will say, “the Great Sadnesses have come to pay a visit”—and in these moments only Valentine knows how to care for her:
“At these times I often go see her, to be sure I still hear her breathing. I listen to her exhale, which is like a song to my ears. It lulls me, the sadness that escapes her mouth to form a cloud above her bed… When she sleeps like that, she is a treasure chest at the bottom of the sea, my beautiful crow with weighted wings.”
But while Valentine must act as mother and caretaker in the city, Favreau gives her a haven where she can still be a child: she spends significant amounts of time at the “Big Cabin” in the country, where she helps out at Grandpa Tho’s store, makes mischief with her cousins, and is generally spoiled by Grandma Isabelle. At times we wish she could stay there indefinitely, picking strawberries and searching for Bruce the loon. But the fresh air does nothing to chase away her mother’s demons, and return to the city they must.
La fée des balcons is buoyed by its indomitable narrator and its beautiful, tender writing. Though the ending falls a little flat, Valentine’s narrative will linger in your mind after you’ve turned the last page. Favreau’s debut isn’t perfect, but I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more from her in the future.
Review by Arielle Aaronson